Long-Term Mesothelioma Survivor Stephen Henley Shares His Journey

MAAC StaffSeptember 13, 2017

The United Kingdom implemented a full ban on asbestos in 1999, but the toxin is still causing trouble for residents today. Despite a ban, the wide use of asbestos in decades prior is still evident in many older buildings and schools, continuing to put countless people at risk of exposure. The remaining asbestos coupled with the long latency period of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases shows that even with a ban, there is a lot more work to do to put an end to these diseases for good.

Stephen Henley, a geologist from the U.K., was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma the same year it was banned.

The Global Dangers of Asbestos

As a geologist, Henley has spent a lot of time traveling the globe. In 1989, his work brought him to Zimbabwe to visit a mine, which was a normal aspect of his work duties. But this was his first experience at a chrysotile asbestos mine and processing plant. Henley said himself and the workers took precaution with a face mask, but it clearly ultimately proved ineffective.

Asbestos mining was rather common in Africa, and it became a global leader in asbestos production. Zimbabwe, in particular, used to be the sixth top producer of chrysotile or white asbestos, behind nations like Russia and Brazil. In 2006, however, two of these mines were closed after piling debts from its owner. Despite its dangers, residents were in turmoil as thousands lost their jobs. Workers and various agencies in the area rallied behind efforts to have the mines reopened.

Though their fight took many years, reports from earlier this month state Zimbabwe is looking to reclaim its spot as a top asbestos producer by reopening these two former mines. With the help of a loan from a Chinese company, another nation known for its asbestos production, the mines will reopen before the end of the year and provide an estimated 100,000 jobs. Officials are excited, as they claim the mines already have international trade markets in place and will generate much needed foreign revenue.

Despite its dangers, officials in Zimbabwe often maintained that white asbestos was not dangerous like other types. But their remarks are simply untrue. “The only protection is to avoid all exposure to asbestos. Blue, white, brown are all dangerous,” Henley insisted.

The reopening of these asbestos mines, and the fact that only around 60 countries have yet to ban its use, shows the long battle ahead in preventing asbestos exposure and these diseases.

The Importance of an Early Diagnosis

Fortunately for Henley, his visit to the asbestos mine was a one-time only occurrence. Though this minimal exposure led to a diagnosis just 10 years later, he was fortunate the disease was detected early. After experiencing shortness of breath while walking, Henley decided to take action.

“I was intending to go on a business trip to India, so I went to the doctor for a checkup, as I did not want to start the trip unwell,” Henley recently told the MAA Center. “Previously that same year, I was on a business trip to Kazakhstan and had similar, though milder, breathing difficulties.”

Mesothelioma is notoriously difficult to diagnose, partially because of nonspecific symptoms like shortness of breath and due to the long latency period following exposure. But because the disease is so aggressive, early detection is essential to have more available treatment options and a less dire prognosis.

Henley was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, located in his right lung, following a pleural biopsy. Fortunately, his mesothelioma was found when it was stage 1, meaning it hadn’t progressed or spread beyond the lining of his one lung. Being diagnosed at stage 1 is rather rare, since there aren’t many symptoms. In Henley’s case, he recalls his symptoms appearing early because of another medical condition, a congenital thoracic cyst.

“I was lucky that it was diagnosed and treated at a stage where a cure was possible. I have nothing but praise for the doctor who diagnosed it and put me on a fast-track treatment programme, and for the surgeon whose skill saved my life,” Henley told us.

Following his diagnosis, Henley underwent surgery to have the affected lining removed, followed by radiotherapy. His treatment started in October 1999, and his symptoms have not recurred since. Though he says it was a slow process to get back to normal life, his wife and family, as well as his doctors, gave him all the support he needed.

“After 3 months recovery and convalescence I resumed my normal working life,” he explained. “There was some pain for several months – to be expected after major surgery – and I still have occasional muscular problems around the operation scar, but nothing disabling.”

Calling for an Asbestos Ban

Henley’s rather fortunate circumstances around his early diagnosis is quite rare. There are many others who aren’t diagnosed until a much later stage with fewer treatment options. Until asbestos is banned in more nations, like the United States, more people are at risk of exposure and similarly harsh diagnoses.

“I am astonished that it still isn’t banned in the U.S.,” Henley said. “If anything it is worse than tobacco. Smoking is a lifestyle choice – but anyone can be exposed to asbestos without even knowing it, because it has been used in so many construction and insulation products.”

Even though asbestos has been banned in the U.K., and Henley was exposed elsewhere, asbestos still remains a global issue. Even for the countries that have banned asbestos, in many instances the past uses of the toxin remain. As these old products age or become disturbed during any construction or natural disasters, the public becomes at high risk of exposure. A ban is the first step to eliminating the dangers of asbestos, but removal will also be of essence throughout the world to completely prevent these deadly diseases.