My name is Virgil Anderson and I am just one of many victims of workplace asbestos exposure.
Like others, I worked with and around this dangerous substance and was never told about the potential risks to my health. During my career working in demolition and with cars, I was exposed to microscopic asbestos fibers which would eventually cause me to become very sick.
After my mesothelioma diagnosis, my health has deteriorated. However, treatments provide some help. With a positive attitude, I continue to fight my disease, live life as best I can, and share my story in hopes of helping just one person avoid asbestos and this terrible cancer.
Day after day, we worked in a haze of dust that included asbestos fibers.
Early Years in West Virginia
I was born and raised in the small, blue collar town of Williamson, West Virginia. My father was a coal miner and died when I was only eight years old. His death put my family in a tough financial situation. As soon as I was old enough, I went to work to earn a paycheck. I didn’t mind, because I actually loved the work. I worked in demolition and excavation throughout high school. Without many skills, but a passion to work and earn for my family, this was the only kind of job I could get. Although it was rewarding, it was also difficult.
The work involved tearing down old buildings. The work was grueling and often had to be done by hand. What I didn’t know was that many of the buildings were full of asbestos. Before the risks of asbestos exposure were well known, this harmful mineral was used in all kinds of building materials, from insulation to wall board. I remember that the dust from the materials often hung in the air around us. Day after day, we worked in a haze of dust that included asbestos fibers.
…the accumulated dust from the asbestos used in [car parts] would become airborne.
A Career in Cars
After high school, I was lucky enough to get into more skilled and interesting work. Unfortunately, I still wasn’t protected from asbestos. Working as a mechanic, I was once again exposed to asbestos fibers. I worked on all areas of cars, including those parts and components that contained asbestos, such as hood liners, brakes, and clutches. Every time I replaced brake pads, accumulated dust from the asbestos used in them would become airborne. Every hood liner I pulled out created yet more asbestos dust.
I remember that my illness began with a bad cough that was rough and dry. I brushed it off as a cold or other infection, but the cough only got worse. Eventually this cough affected my ability to breathe.
Over time, asbestos fibers damaged my body. Some people develop cancer because of this damage. Why some are lucky and don’t get cancer is not understood. However, I was not one of the lucky few. Before I turned 50, I was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, a form of cancer that attacks the tissue around the lungs. The diagnosis did not come easily, though. First I got very sick and didn’t know what was wrong.
I remember my illness began with a bad cough. Eventually, it became difficult to walk even short distances even though I had been fit and active. Without health insurance, my only choice for medical care was to head to the emergency room.
In the emergency room, I was told I likely had pneumonia. The doctor prescribed a course of antibiotics and sent me home to recover. I took the medication, but after a couple of weeks, I was no better. In fact, I felt like my symptoms were getting worse, like the antibiotics had done nothing to cure what I thought was an infection.
I was told I had cancer, and not just any cancer, but one of the most aggressive and deadly types of cancer: pleural mesothelioma.
Diagnosed with Mesothelioma
With worsening symptoms, I went back to the ER where the doctors ordered more X-rays and a PET scan. The results showed I had a pleural effusion, a buildup of fluid in between the two layers of pleural tissue. This condition can be a complication of cancer, so the doctor sampled the fluid. He found no cancer cells. To confirm I did not have cancer, they also did a biopsy, removing a sample of tissue for examination.
Unfortunately, the biopsy did not give me the confirmation I had expected and hoped for. I was told I had pleural mesothelioma. It took a lot of research online, but I finally learned as much as I could about my cancer. I discovered it was my work and asbestos exposure that most likely lead to my illness.
My story is one that I share because I know that it could help someone else.
Treatment and the Future
I was in a difficult position without any health insurance. I applied for social security disability insurance, but in the meantime I had to wait for treatment. Always proactive and more comfortable doing something rather than sitting around, I hunted online for resources and support. Fortunately, I found help at the National Cancer Institute.
I have received treatment and financial support, but my cancer was already so advanced that not all treatment options were possible. I was disappointed to find I was not a candidate for surgery because of how far the cancer had already spread. Instead, I have been receiving chemotherapy, which is shrinking my existing tumors and slowing the spread of the cancer.
I still have hope for the future, and every day I try to enjoy being alive despite my new limitations. I can no longer work and must have regular treatments including draining of the fluid from around my lungs. This makes it easier to breathe. Walking is often difficult, and I use an oxygen tank to get around more easily.
I am young for someone diagnosed with mesothelioma. This is possibly a reflection of my level of asbestos exposure beginning at a such a young age. My story is one that I share because I know that it could help someone else. I want more people to know what happened to me so they can avoid the same fate. I may be limited now, but I still love life. I appreciate the time I still have with family and friends more than ever.