Archive for November, 2009

Asbestos Meditation

Posted in cancer, Cancer Life, testicular cancer with tags , , , , , on November 22, 2009 by lawler

On Friday I interviewed Meg Gaines for our third installment of the Wisconsin Storycast — yet another branch of Wisconsin Story Project. Gaines is the Director of the Center for Patient Partnerships here in Madison and a cancer survivor. Her story is amazing, especially considering how it led to her fervent patient advocacy and the founding of the Center.

At one point in the interview (which you will be able to hear on the Wisconsin Storycast next month — stay tuned) she began to talk about how she meditates on some of the things that scare her most, namely the death of her children and her own death. She spoke about how important it was for her to come to a resolution on those frightening events so that she can face them — or, at least, the idea of them.

So, what does this have to do with me or this blog, with cancer, with asbestos? Good question. Here’s how it fits together: a day after interviewing Gaines and — as happens with many of the cancer related interviews I’ve conducted for WSP — being faced with new ideas to think about on cancer, life, death, and everything between, Dawn and I walked down to our basement to begin the demolition of a decades old (and quite humorous in decor) room so that we could refinish it to better suit the expansion of our home and the child we hope to adopt. We were both very excited and began tearing walls out and then found ourselves looking at the ceiling. It was covered in this goofy thatch stuff, remiscent of the set from my high school production of South Pacific. We tore it down, and beneath it was a fiber board in sheets nailed to the floor joists. We began tearing that down, and it was old and crumbly. The basement started to look dusty. I told Dawn that we should stop and get dust masks and goggles. So, we did. Then we went at it with abandon and tore the stuff down.

Later that night, I went for a walk around the bay and started to realize that the stuff we had just torn down from the ceiling of the basement could have contained asbestos! We had worn nothing but basic dust masks and eye protection. Judging from the two Playboy issues we found in the ceiling and one wall, it appeared the room had been built sometime during or after 1976, right around the time asbestos was being seriously phased out of construction material like floor and ceiling tiles. There had been composite floor tile in the basement room too, but we had it professionally removed. It had contained asbestos. What, I thought on my walk, had I done? Had my absent-mindedness led me to allow Dawn and I to be exposed to airborne asbestos dust without proper protection? Shit.

On the walk, as I panicked over this realization, I remembered what Meg had said. I have faced cancer, faced my own mortality, my lack of invincibility — but still I remain terribly afraid. I tried to use this asbestos incident to face up to it all, to think about my death. How might it happen? What would happen to the people I love when I was gone? Could I face death in peace — with dignity? (here a classic George Costanza line springs to mind, of course: “I’ve lived my whole life in shame — why should I die with dignity!?!”)

When I came home from my walk, I didn’t know how to tell Dawn of my asbestos fear. I waited until the morning to do so. Then I went and bought a proper asbestos rated respirator, gloves, and a disposable coverall. I went back into the basement and cleaned most of the mess up. Then, I decided that I would hire professionals to evaluate the basement, test the ceiling material, and, if needed, finish the clean up.

I’m still worried, of course. If the stuff turns out to have contained asbestos, we were exposed beyond the level that I think is healthy; however, I also know that asbestos related cancers are very rare — they seem to be found mostly in folks with long term, high level exposure. And then I think, “Well, hell, 85% of lung cancers are thought to be caused by smoking, and look at all those fools that not only take in a known carginogen, but do it with pleasure, without the benefit of respirators!”