Beating Mesothelioma lung cancer - Debbie Brewer

Beating Mesothelioma lung cancer - Debbie Brewer

Published August 2009

Asbestos and cancer

There has been much written in the media recently about the dangers of asbestos, the lack of Government action, and the fact that cases of illness and particularly cancers like lung cancer, colorectal cancer, ovarian cancer, breast cancer and  prostate cancer are set to peak between five and ten years from now. Four out of every 10,000 Americans are thought to be infected, but we could not find a figure for the UK.

Mesothelioma is a rare, but aggressive form of lung cancer. Asbestos causes fibres to grow in the tissue of the lungs, greatly restricting their ability to absorb oxygen. The cancer is commonly thought to be a death sentence. One lady, Debbie Brewer, would like you to hear her story. She is very much alive and kicking!

My name is Debbie Brewer and I am 49 years old. I was born in Plymouth in 1959 and am the eldest of 4 daughters.

I have lived in Plymouth all my life and my father was a hard working man. He had many jobs including being a milkman and working for the local water board but the job that would implode on our family was with the MoD. He gave 3 years of his life to that job and started the time bomb which would destroy him and take him from those he loved the most.

My Mesothelioma story starts in 1994, I was working as a dinner lady at my childrens school and was out in all winds and weathers. I called my GP out one evening as I was in so much pain and after having blood tests done, found I had contracted viral pneumonia.

I continued to have terrible back pain and was struggling to breathe. I couldnt walk up my stairs to go to the bathroom, I was so frightened that this was the end of my life. I was referred to a chest specialist and was told I had fluid and scarring on the lungs probably due to whooping cough when I was a child. I was diagnosed with pleurisy and asthma, I thought no more of it and took the painkillers and antibiotics supplied by doctors as it was all I had open to me. The virus left me with terrible pain in my back and struggling to breathe continued.

In 1996 I became pregnant with my third child. I had another bout of the previous problems. I had the same pain, same breathlessness and was hospitalised with a suspected blood clot on the lung. I explained that it was the same thing I had been experiencing since 1994 and stayed in hospital for a week only to be told what I had told the doctors in the first place. There was talk of doing a CT scan. This wasnt done due to me being pregnant. I was 37 years old and knowing what I know now, my baby had saved my life as I probably would have listened to the medical profession and had chemotherapy.

I didnt bother complaining any more as I had 2 children from my first marriage and my new baby from my second. I was too busy to be in and out of hospital. That was until 2006. My father had been ill for a while, he had pleural plaque which made him struggle for breath and now he had small cell lung cancer. He had worked for the MoD in Plymouth between 1963 and 1966 . His Job was to remove asbestos lagging from the pipes without protective clothing. This wonderful man did this to support his wife and 4 daughters. I watched my beautiful, young at heart father at the age of 69, turn into a frail old man before my eyes.

It was heart breaking. He never knew the problems I was about to face and I am grateful for that as I would hate him to blame himself, none of this was his fault. It was the fault of the greedy management he worked for who failed to tell him the dangers of asbestos and how it was going to impact on his family.

I searched on the internet to find out anything I could about pleural plaque and came across lung cancer, this must be what he has, I thought, Mesothelioma. I looked at the criteria for the disease and was shocked to find I had suffered most of the symptoms since 1994. My father never had Mesothelioma.

I didnt look into it any further until my dad died in August 2006.

I waited 3 months before I saw my doctor. I asked for a chest x-ray to satisfy myself that I did not have Mesothelioma. How wrong I was, I was called back to see my GP the day after when he dropped the bombshell, I could have Mesothelioma.

I was devastated, I had started to get my life back together, my youngest son is autistic which meant a fight to get him into a school were he was supported. My older children were more independent, I was dealing with Alopecia as well, my hair has been coming out over the last 2 years, and I was starting to get a little of me back. My time was around the corner.

How cruel this was. I waited for 2 weeks before I saw a doctor. I was supposed to have an endoscopy to take a sample from the lung for biopsy. This was declined as the tumour was too far down in the left lung.

I had a VATs (Video Assisted Thoracoscopy) operation on 4th November 2006 which removed 2 litres of fluid and take a biopsy of the tumour. This operation changed my life. The pain and breathlessness had diminished and I felt a lot better. It was a very painful day for my daughter as I have always made a big thing about celebrating the childrens birthdays and the 5th November was hers. Her comment was that it was the worst birthday she had ever had, I had to admit it probably was.

I had tube in my lung for around a week which the district nurse would try and remove fluid with a vacuum bottle. The tube was removed after no fluid was building up and, thankfully, it hasnt since. I went back to the hospital on 13th November 2006 and was told the devastating news, I had Mesothelioma.

I was heart broken, I couldnt leave my babies. Was I never going to see my children move house, get married, have children of their own. My future was gone, I couldnt see anything other than my lovely children having to cope without me and I decided then that I was not going to leave them, there had to be something that I could do to save my life, the NHS wasnt going to let me die, were they?

I saw my first oncologist around a 2 weeks later. There was no urgency in going any further and I was in a multi disciplinary team which is supposed to be a team of experts in the field who would support the patient fully. (I havent had any feed back or contact from that team since leaving the oncologist in 2006). The oncologist was only interested in giving me chemotherapy and leaving me to die. I couldnt get Alimta with him as he refused me and said I would have to go else where if I wanted it as he would only give me what was available on the NHS even though I had health insurance with my company. He told me I could claim industrial injury benefit, which I knew then I couldnt as I had not worked with asbestos.

He then went on to tell me, while looking at the floor, that I had 6 - 9 months left of my life. I point blank refused to accept this and decided to look for an oncologist who would be more supportive of how I felt.

The next doctor was great and understood what I wanted. He told me people live for many years with this disease. I had radiotherapy at the site of the operation and decided to name my tumour Theo as I needed to accept it.

Theo was good to me for over a year, no change had occurred, that was until January 2008. Theo was heading for my heart, I already had the cancer in the lymph node from the start. Again I felt let down, I was told by the second oncologist to go home and enjoy myself, how can I enjoy myself for Petes sake, I am going to die!

I was told that younger people than me get cancer and lose their lives, which is terrible I know. He said that they havent had what I have and I should feel grateful for my 48 years. Well I was never grateful for that as I had been poisoned just like my dad. I was determined to live and fight this disease that was trying so hard to take me away from my family and again was not prepared to accept that my life was ending.

I have a website which was designed by my daughter and has been a great support tool for me. A wonderful couple had seen me on This Morning with Fern and Phil and had contacted me as he had Mesothelioma as well. They were trying alternatives and had been to a clinic in Worcestershire, Park Attwood, to have mistletoe therapy. The mistletoe boosts the immune system and makes the cancer cells vulnerable. I made an appointment at the clinic and started the treatment in May 2008.

The couple had also told me about a naturopathic doctor in Harley Street who worked on the blood determining a diet to beat cancer. I went to see him and he told me about a treatment in Frankfurt, Germany that had a Professor who had been having some success with Mesothelioma. That was it, what did I have to lose, I came home and rang the German clinic. I spoke to Professor Thomas Vogl who said he could help me and gave me an appointment for a week later. That was so quick, I got myself sorted and went over.

I was so sure I was going to get the usual knock back and was pleasantly surprised. The Professor was so positive and said he could help me. He said I had to survive as I was now one of his statistics!

I had my first procedure done on 25th May 2008. It is called Chemoembolization and targets the tumour and not the whole system. Each treatment costs 4000euros. I could pay for it as I had had a compensation payout from the MoD in Plymouth in 2007 after they had admitted liability.
The procedure is done through the femoral artery in the groin. A catheter is passed through the vein to the tumour in the lung. The chemo is put in and is locked in with an embolizing agent which also cuts off the blood supply to the tumour. After the procedure, I rested for around 5-7 hours before seeing the Professor, he would update me on the procedure and what he saw with the CT scan before I returned to my hotel.

The side affects are being very tired and a little nauseous which lasts about 7 days. I worked full time all through the treatment as I wanted to keep things as normal as possible for my children.

I returned 4 weeks later for my second treatment and to get the results of the first. I had felt I had a little more lung capacity but put this down to the Professor and his positive attitude working on my psyche.

The Professor told me there had been significant changes, my tumour had shrunk!

It was 10% smaller, I was thrilled. I had 5 further treatments and each one reduced the tumour more. I last returned to Frankfurt in June 2009 for another check up and that showed a yet further 10% reduction; thats 83% in total since May 2008!!

I feel so well and love the fact that I have got my life back. The Professor has told me that I am his best example yet and is studying me to find out why Theo has responded so well to the treatments.  I am now campaigning to get the treatment on trial in the UK as there is so little available to Mesothelioma patients.

I want others to have the hope and joys I have had, I have been in touch with others with Mesothelioma who are having successes also and long may it continue.




What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring toxic mineral that was commonly used throughout the 20th century in thousands of products and many industries. Asbestos is naturally resistant to heat and fire, making it ideal for use in insulation. The mineral was often used in insulation and the fine, flexible fibers were frequently mixed with cement and woven into fabrics.
Exposure to asbestos can result in the development of serious illnesses such as malignant mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. Each year, approximately 10,000 Americans pass away due to an asbestos-related illness.

Where was asbestos exposure most common?

Exposure to asbestos occurred frequently on the job in many different occupations. Jobsites where asbestos exposure was often prevalent include asbestos mines and the processing and manufacturing plants where asbestos products were produced. Shipyards, oil refineries, power and chemical plants were also common exposure sites. Those who worked in certain occupations such as firefighters, auto mechanics and machinists may have been exposed to asbestos frequently.

The Unites States Navy also heavily used asbestos in the construction of ships and vessels. As a result, thousands of shipyard workers and Navy veterans have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases. 

What cancers are caused by asbestos exposure?

Asbestos exposure has been linked to the development of a myriad of illnesses and is known to cause mesothelioma and lung cancer. Exposure has also been linked to gastrointestinal cancer and colorectal cancer, as well as breast, ovarian and prostate cancer.
Asbestosis, a progressive pulmonary disease that affects approximately four of every 10,000 Americans, is also caused by asbestos exposure. Conditions such as pleural plaques, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and interstitial lung disease are among other illnesses associated with asbestos exposure.

What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer. One of the primary mesothelioma causes is asbestos exposure. The cancer develops in the mesothelium, a protective membrane that lines three body cavities: the thoracic cavity (pleura), abdominal cavity (peritoneum) and the heart sac (pericardium). In the case of testicular mesothelioma, the cancer develops in the tunica vaginalis, the membrane surrounding the testicles.
Approximately 2,000 to 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma annually.

What are the different types of mesothelioma?

The four different types of mesothelioma are named for the area of the body they affect. The most common type of the cancer is pleural mesothelioma, which develops in the mesothelial lining of the lungs, known as the pleura. Peritoneal mesothelioma occurs in the peritoneum, the lining of the abdominal cavity. Pericardial mesothelioma affects the membrane surrounding the heart, known as the pericardium while testicular mesothelioma develops in the tunica vaginalis, the lining around the testicles.

How does mesothelioma develop?

The cancer develops when asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested into the body where they can become lodged in organs or cavities, causing inflammation or infection and cellular damage. Overtime, the cancerous cells begin to divide uncontrollably, causing the membranes in the affected location to thicken. Fluid then begins to build up in the spaces between membrane layers and tumors begin to form, causing impaired bodily function.

What are the symptoms of mesothelioma?

A  mesothelioma patient will generally not demonstrate symptoms of mesothelioma until 20 to 50 years after initial exposure to asbestos. Symptoms often resemble illnesses such as influenza and pneumonia, and in the case of pericardial mesothelioma, symptoms can resemble other cardiac conditions. This can make diagnosis difficult though informing a doctor of prior asbestos exposure can alert them of the possibility of an asbestos-related disease.

Patients with pleural mesothelioma may experience symptoms including persistent raspy cough, difficulty breathing and swallowing, night sweats, fatigue and chest pain. Symptoms expressed by a peritoneal mesothelioma patient include diarrhea or constipation, nausea, fever, swelling or pain in the abdomen and anemia. Pericardial mesothelioma patients may experience chest pain, heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, fever and fatigue. The only known symptom of testicular mesothelioma is the appearance of testicular lumps.

What is the typical prognosis for a patient with mesothelioma?

A mesothelioma patients prognosis, or the probable course and outcome of a diseases influence on the body, is influenced by numerous factors. Since a mesothelioma diagnosis often occurs once the cancer has progressed to later stages of development, prognosis is typically poor. However if a patient is diagnosed before the cancer has spread or elects to undergo treatment to combat the cancer, their prognosis may improve. Factors that may influence prognosis include: the stage of a patients mesothelioma at the time of diagnosis, type of mesothelioma, size of the tumor, location of the tumor and whether it may be surgically removed and the age and overall health of the patient.

Is there a cure for mesothelioma?

While a cure for mesothelioma does not currently exist, treatment options such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are available for patients to help combat the cancer. Extensive studies and clinical trials are in progress internationally and cancer specialists and doctors are constantly working towards the discovery of a cure.

This information was supplied by Timothy Cavanaugh, the National awareness coordinator for the Mesothelioma Center ( With more than 3,000 pages of content, this site features information on asbestos, mesothelioma, and other cancers that are caused by asbestos exposure (lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, etc.).

We have updated this article with the very sad news that Debbie passed away in May 2013.

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