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, never being told of the risks to my health. Working in demolition and with cars, over a career, I was exposed to and inhaled microscopic asbestos fibers which would eventually cause me to become very sick.
After a diagnosis of mesothelioma, my health has deteriorated, but treatments do provide some help. With a positive attitude, I continue to fight my disease, to live life as best I can, and to share my story in the hopes of helping even just one other 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. When my father, a coal miner, died when I was just eight years old, it put my family in a tough financial situation. As soon as I was old enough, I went to work to earn a paycheck, but I didn’t mind. 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 and, although it was rewarding, it was difficult.
The work involved tearing buildings down, often by hand. It was hard grueling work, and while I didn’t mind it, 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 that I and the other workers tore down 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, but 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: hood liners, brakes, and clutches. Every time I replaced brake pads on a car, the 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, rough and dry. I brushed it off as a cold or other infection, but the cough only got worse and eventually affected my ability to breathe.
Over time, exposure to asbestos fibers caused damage to my body. Some people develop cancer because of this damage. Why some are lucky and don’t get cancer is not understood, but I was not one of the lucky few. Before I even turned 50, I was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, the form of the disease 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 that my illness began with a bad cough, rough and dry. I brushed it off as a cold or other infection, but the cough only got worse and eventually affected my ability to breathe. Eventually I found it difficult just to walk short distances, and I had previously been active and fit. Without health insurance, my only choice to see a doctor was to head to the emergency room.
There I was told that I likely had pneumonia. The doctor prescribed me a course of antibiotics and sent me home to recover. I took the medication but found after a couple of weeks that 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 my symptoms worsening, I went back to the ER where the doctors ordered more X-rays and a PET scan. The results showed that I had a pleural effusion, a buildup of fluid around the lungs, in between the two layers of pleural tissue. This can be a complication of cancer, so the doctor sampled the fluid but found no cancer cells in it. 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 cancer: pleural mesothelioma. It took a lot of research online, but I finally learned as much as I could about my cancer and discovered that 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
With no health insurance, I was in a difficult position. I applied for and waited to get approved 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 that help at the National Cancer Institute.
I have been able to get treatment and financial support, but my cancer was already advanced enough that not all treatment options were possible. I was disappointed to find out that I was not a candidate for surgery to remove most of the tumors because of how far it had already spread. Instead I have been undergoing 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, in spite of the limitations my illness has put on me. I was once active and now I’m limited. I can no longer work and I have to have regular treatments including draining of the fluid from around my lungs so that I can breathe more easily. Walking is difficult and I use an oxygen tank to get around more easily.
I am young for someone diagnosed with mesothelioma, possibly a reflection of how much asbestos I was exposed to beginning at 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 about what happened to me so that they can avoid the same fate. I may be limited now, but I still love life and I’m happy just to be alive. I appreciate the time I still have with family and friends more than ever.