It was used in many products both industrial and domestic. From adhesives to brakes; from vinyl floors to fire-proof clothes and blankets; from hair dryers to appliances; from cigarette filters to talcum powder and make-up. Asbestos was everywhere.
But the “asbestos kingdom” caused a tremendous amount of anguish. People who came in close contacts with it began to die at alarming rates. Documents show that manufacturers became aware of the health risks from way back in the 1930s and 40s, but kept the information secret. In the 1960s, strong evidence emerged that asbestos fibers posed a dangerous health risk, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and lung scarring. Since then, the government began regulating its production.
Still, asbestos continues to be imported. An estimated 300 metric tons of raw chrysotile asbestos was imported into the U.S. in 2020, almost double the amount from 2019. According to the Mesothelioma Center 39,000 people lose their lives to asbestos-related disease every year and new cases of mesothelioma continue to occur.
In Good Hands
One of the doctors to treat mesothelioma, Dr. Robert Cameron, who is listed as one of the top five doctors for mesothelioma and thoracic surgery, works right here at our West Los Angeles VA. Cameron is also listed as one of the most renowned pleural mesothelioma specialists in the world.
Through his research, he has extended the life expectancy of his patients and improved their quality of life. His most notable achievement is the development of the pleurectomy with decortication (P/D) surgery, now accepted as the most appropriate operation for mesothelioma patients. Patients do not lose the affected lung, but do lose the cancer.
Cameron provides a simple explanation. “Many cancers grow into things,” he explains. “But most of the mesothelioma tumor is not attached too tightly to things in the chest. It kind of grows there, pushing on things but not into things. So you can pull it off.”
“It’s something similar to taking a peel off an orange. You peel it off. And if there are any cells left, you take care of it with precision radiation. We have one of the best radiation oncologists here.”
An Impressive Track Record
In addition to being the Chief of the Section of Thoracic Surgery at our West L.A. Medical Center, Cameron is a professor of cardiothoracic surgery, for the past 25 years, and surgical oncology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Founding Chief of the UCLA Division of Thoracic Surgery.
Cameron has received several awards recognizing his work. In 2022, he was recognized as a Super Doctor of Southern California. In 2021, Los Angeles Magazine announced him as a top doctor of the year, and from 2007 to 2022, Cameron was recognized as one of America’s Top Doctors.
Cameron treats mesothelioma by surgically removing the cancer, and whatever cells remain are removed with precision radiation. His operations have extended the lives of numerous people and the fact that the affected lung is not removed, the patient can lead a reasonably normal life as he did before the surgery.
“In the past, surgeons removed the entire lung and some surgeons still do. But it’s a surgery that’s more difficult to recover from,” Cameron said. “We’ve learned 30 years ago that it wasn’t necessary. After surgery, the patients can breathe well. They can’t tell the difference.”
What stands out most about Cameron is that he’s approachable and friendly, and he wants Veterans, diagnosed with mesothelioma, to come here and get treated. Cameron has a couple of challenges.
The Challenge: Nationwide Awareness
A major challenge that Cameron faces is that many Veterans throughout the country are not aware that they can ask to be referred to Dr. Cameron here in Los Angeles.
Veterans and their health care providers can submit referrals so that those patients with mesothelioma can benefit from the care provided by Dr. Cameron and the interprofessional team at GLA.
“We can take patients without a referral. If they are here in the area, we are obligated to treat them,” Cameron said.
Asbestos is Still All Around Us
In 1924, thirty three years old, Nellie Kershaw, an English textile worker fell ill and died. Her death was the first to be officially connected to asbestos exposure.
Since then, thousands have died because of exposure to the substance. And yet, it is still all around us in buildings, in cosmetics and more.
“It’s still in all the houses that were built in the 40s and 50s” Cameron said. “Generally, if it’s contained it’s not a hazard.”
But asbestos is found in many other products. “It’s even in car brakes. If you work as an auto mechanic, you can be exposed to literally billions of asbestos fibers over a lifetime,” Cameron said.
“Sixty seven countries and territories have outright banned the use of asbestos, but the U.S. has not."
Phillip Prokop is Alive and Kicking
In 2015, Phillip Prokop was burdened by persistent cough that wouldn’t leave. So he went to see a doctor who suggested that he take a test. Phillip tells his story with humor and a smile.
“After the test, I went back to see that doctor, and he said I had mesothelioma and suggested surgery. We scheduled the surgery, but he opened me up and immediately closed me.
He didn't want to go any further - he didn't take care of the problem.
I asked my daughter about what to do next. My daughter and I were upset. So she went online and found Dr. Cameron. We started to see him, and found out that he’s an excellent physician.”
I asked him one time, “Doctor Cameron, there's people worse off than me, right?”
He shook his head and said, “No.”
I went, “Well, what do you mean?”
I said, “dead?”
He said “People with mesothelioma only last five to seven months.”
Dr. Cameron suggested surgery. He explained the surgery, and what was going to happen after the surgery. A few weeks after the operation, I started with a radiation treatment every day for five weeks. That was my life for five weeks - go to radiation and then come back home, watch TV, do a few things around the house and that’s that.
I got to the point to where I could drive myself. I didn’t need to bother my daughter or my son in law. The last two I’d go in for the radiation, spend five minutes, and drive back home.
Now I've got a hairy chest on one side, not too hairy on other side.
I've been seeing Dr. Cameron for the last six or seven years now and he gives me a clean bill of health every time.
I'm just happy every morning. I get out of bed and it’s an adventure. It’s a great feeling to know that, hey, I'm still kicking around.
I have my faith in him totally, He's done very well by me. I can honestly say because of only having one lung fully functioning, there's a lot of activities that I don't do.
I live with my daughter and my son-in-law. After losing my son, who was 42 years old, for sleep apnea, and my wife in 2016, I was living at home alone.
My daughter would come and visit every couple of weeks to check on me. I became a little depressed, so she suggested, that I come live them in the Marietta/Temecula area. So that's where I'm at and I feel very comfortable.
I'm pretty self-sufficient. I cook my own meals; I wash my own laundry. I change my own bed sheets. I feed the dogs. If I want go shopping. I get in the car and go. I don't really like to depend upon people if I'm able to do it.
I stay active and busy all the time. You know, I don't want to sit there and become a couch potato.
I served in the army at a missile site. This was in 1965 when I was drafted. I was at a missile site that protected the United States against the Russians.
I'm dog sitting right now because they're on vacation. So it's me and the dogs. I got the whole house to myself. I haven't had any parties, but hey, I'm doing OK, I'm happy. I'm happy. Every day is a gift.”