How a Cancer Diagnosis Can Cause PTSD

Most people are familiar with the term “shell shock.”

First coined during World War I, soldiers developed this type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a reaction to the intensity of war.

Symptoms such as confusion, fatigue, loss of sight and hearing are attributed to shell shock. Soldiers were deeply affected by the symptoms, and many faced military discharge.

The American Psychiatric Association attributes the discovery of shell shock symptoms and trauma to Army psychologist Dr. Charles Myers.

Once symptoms were linked to traumatic experiences of war, doctors and psychologists used different and more effective treatments to heal the accumulated mental trauma.

There are many similarities between the trauma soldiers experience on the battlefield and the trauma cancer patients experience in their battle for survival.

A 2013 study at Columbia University revealed nearly 1 in 4 women recently diagnosed with breast cancer experienced symptoms of PTSD.

Cancer and Traumatic Experiences

The American Society of Clinical Oncology patient information website recently published an article that clarifies cancer-related triggers of trauma symptoms.

We all know facing a diagnosis or harsh cancer treatments is physically and emotionally taxing. However, patients may not relate their cancer battle to trauma.

Some of the cancer-related triggers include:

  • Initial Diagnosis: Hearing a doctor say the word “cancer” is life changing for most patients. The initial diagnosis jolts people, stirring negative emotions such as fear, worry, anxiety and dread.
  • Cancer Staging: When doctors inform patients of the advanced stage of their cancer, many patients realize that they must fight for their lives. The news may come as a sudden shock to patients and trigger unanticipated feelings of anger and disbelief.
  • Treatments: Many patients experience fearful emotions during their cancer therapy. When people think of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, they associate the treatments with pain and common side effects such as nausea and fatigue.
  • Test Results and Fear of Tumor Growth: Patients are familiar with the battery of medical tests necessary to identify and monitor cancer growth. Some tests are painful and awaiting results is nerve-wracking. Patients may worry about an uncertain future that is contingent on the results of painful testing.

A cancer battle tests a person’s strength and resolve. It is normal for patients to feel anxiety and fear related to their cancer diagnosis and treatment. When symptoms of trauma become more pervasive and don’t go away over time, clinical intervention might be necessary.

Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Mental health professionals use a universal tool called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to identify clinically significant mental disturbances.

DSM-5 helps clinicians distinguish between normal responses to trauma and symptoms of PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD are considered “clinically significant” when they interfere in several areas of life, last more than a month, and are physical and emotionally debilitating. Not all people with cancer experience trauma, but identifying the symptoms is a helpful step toward recovery for traumatized patients.

Most people associate PTSD with soldiers in battle or victims of violent attacks. However, DSM-5 notes sudden and catastrophic medical incidents may be comparably traumatic.

Hearing an unexpected diagnosis of an aggressive cancer such as mesothelioma may induce symptoms of trauma.

Some of these symptoms include:

  • Intrusive memories of the traumatic event or flashbacks
  • Negative mood and changes in cognition
  • Problems with sleep and concentration
  • Irritability and aggression
  • Hypervigilance and exaggerated startle response

Experiencing some or all of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean a person has PTSD. Some people experience symptoms of trauma that never meet criteria for clinical diagnosis.

Nevertheless, it is important to talk with your health team if you experience similar symptoms. Maintaining optimal physical and mental health is imperative throughout cancer treatment.

Clinical Treatment for Cancer-Related Trauma

If a doctor determines your symptoms of trauma are clinically significant, they make a referral to a mental health professional.

Skilled clinicians use various interventions to address the causes of traumatic symptoms. Psychotherapy or mental health counseling is a standard method of treatment for PTSD.

In therapy, clinicians help patients develop the coping skills necessary to deal with the trauma they’ve experienced. Therapists also work to educate their clients about the symptomatic nature of a particular disorder.

Mental health professionals also focus on a person’s strengths. With an emphasis on positive attributes, clients develop more effective strategies to conquer anxiety, fear and trauma.

Healing from the Emotional Impact of a Diagnosis

Although a cancer patient’s experience might not warrant a clinical mental health diagnosis, dealing with a life-threatening illness is never easy.

Families dealing with cancer encounter a significant amount of stressful situations. Learning effective ways to relieve tension is a way to maintain good mental health.

Some people find solace in writing. Keeping a journal about daily life presents a useful tool for processing positive and negative elements of one’s life experience.

Many people say taking a long, hot bath is a good way to wash one’s cares away. Sneaking in a midday nap is a way to wake up feeling refreshed from the worries of the day.

Protective factors help to shield the negative impact of cancer related-trauma and stress. Understanding the treatment plan and having good relationships with doctors helps patients envision recovery.

Having a supportive system of family, friends and loved ones helps patients cope with a tough diagnosis.

Sometimes we find the best “medicine” among those we love.

Meaningful Planning for Final Arrangements

Some people wait to reach a certain age or receive a serious diagnosis before they start planning their final wishes.

Luckily, when we lost Dad to mesothelioma, we didn’t have much planning to do. Ever the family overseer, my father preplanned his memorial services.

He prepared for everything, including financial planning.

I am only now realizing the gracefulness of Dad’s consideration of our family during our time of grief. We were all a mess when he passed, and his prior decisions relieved some of the stress at a time when his guidance was most needed.

Exploring final arrangements ahead of time can relieve families of unnecessary anxiety during a time of emotional need. Preplanning also presents an opportunity for a person to make their own choices regarding their final wishes.

Dad found peace of mind by guiding our family through the difficult process of saying goodbye.

Developing a Plan Early Reduces Stress Later

Most folks don’t know much about the funeral process until they face the loss of a loved one.

Lack of planning often leads distraught family members toward emotion-based final arrangement decisions. The shock of loss can cloud one’s judgment.

Exploring aspects of final services in advance is a helpful step toward developing a solid plan.

For many, the most alarming part of final arrangement planning is the cost. Financial concerns may guide much of the decision-making process.

The National Funeral Directors Association is a reputable organization of more than 10,000 funeral homes in 49 states. In 2014, the NFDA estimated the median cost of a traditional funeral with burial at more than $8000.

Such a price tag may surprise bereaved families.

An expensive funeral doesn’t necessarily equate to a meaningful service.

A thoughtful service is a reflection of the memorialized person. Preplanning ahead of time allows families to create a memorial that truly embodies the essence of a loved one’s life.

Remembering them with honor and dignity is the goal of most funeral planning.

Be Aware of Different Types of Services

Most families consider spiritual beliefs, family and cultural traditions, and of course, the costs when making their final decisions.

Knowing what types of memorial services are offered is a good starting point for most people. It is also important to understand legal and ethical elements that may influence final decision making.

Each state governs funeral practices differently, but the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) provides national regulations that guide funeral providers.

There are many options available, so it helps to have a clear, universal definition of services. The FTC has an important role in clarifying the options available for customers across the nation.

According to the FTC, there are several basic types of services provided in most states, including:

  • Traditional Full-Service: Traditional funeral services are the most expensive type of memorial. This type of funeral includes a viewing or “wake,” a formal funeral service, hearse transportation and a graveside memorial. Often services take place on two separate days.
  • Direct Burial: Direct burials exclude a formal viewing, hearse transportation and certain services provided the funeral home. There are fewer necessary goods which brings the cost down significantly. This type of service usually shortens the time between passing and burial.
  • Direct Cremation: Services that involve direct cremation generally omit the formal viewing. After processing, the remains are placed in a container called an urn which is usually present at a memorial service where families join together. Cremation is much more affordable than traditional services.

Planning final arrangements can be a bit overwhelming. Understanding the basic services available can ease the decision-making process.

Protections Provided by the Funeral Rule

Federal guidelines are designed to protect customers shopping for funeral products and services. The FTC’s Funeral Rule offers peace of mind to many shoppers.

While each state passes their own laws regarding legal funeral practices, the state laws coincide with these federal guidelines.

Among the many protections in the Funeral Rule:

  • Customers can shop with funeral homes and only pay for the goods and services they want to buy, rather than choosing from lavish packages that lump products together. Families can save money by only buying the goods they need.
  • When seeking a price quote, shoppers don’t have to show up at the establishment in person. Service providers must give customers a price quote over the phone, if they inquire. This is especially helpful for families planning under time constraints.
  • People who meet with funeral home professionals to discuss plans are provided with a General Price List. This document clearly states the prices of all goods and services available from the provider. Seeing the listed price can help people make cost-conscious choices.
  • Sometimes the cemetery or crematory has separate requirements which families should know before signing a funeral arrangement contract. The provider must inform the customer with a list of those requirements in advance of purchase.
  • With some services such as cremation, caskets are not necessary. The customer may choose to use an alternate or less elaborate container. Other shoppers may choose to order a casket from a different provider. Funeral homes must allow people to order them from other companies, rather than exclusively selling their own products.

Making final arrangements is a difficult process under the best of circumstances.

During times of emotional despair, discernment escapes most of us. I’m not sure my mother was capable of planning Dad’s services in the days immediately following his death.

It was a tough time for our family, and I learned from my father’s thoughtfulness. Taking care of my family in the future is just as important as taking care of them now.

Making arrangements for our final goodbyes is a way I can comfort them when they confront life without me.

Mesothelioma Survivor Playing Guitar, Touting Medical Marijuana

Mesothelioma survivor Jim Huff always wanted to learn how to play the guitar, but he never quite found the time. Work and family obligations always took precedence — until now.

A diagnosis of malignant pleural mesothelioma 10 months ago finally made it happen, leading him into the music store where his guitar lessons began and his world expanded.

Eric Clapton, take notice; Jim Huff is on the rise.

“I enjoy playing it now, but can’t believe I waited so long. When I was diagnosed, I didn’t exactly create a bucket list, but mesothelioma opened my eyes,” he said. “It helped me prioritize, and now I’m doing the little things I always wanted to do.”

Huff, 67, was devastated by his original diagnosis, but he has been energized by his success with medical marijuana, buying him time to learn new riffs on his 12-string guitar.

Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” never sounded so good.

“I’ve resigned myself to the fact that running a marathon is now out of the question,” Huff joked. “I have diminished breathing capacity and not a lot of stamina anymore, but I feel really good, like I can beat this thing. Not just hold it in check, but beat this thing.”

Medical Marijuana Works for Him

Since he started with the cannabidiol-rich marijuana oil (CBD), his CT scans have shown no new tumor growth, and even a slight regression. Originally, he was not a surgical candidate, and the thought of debilitating chemotherapy side effects did not appeal to him.

So he explored alternatives, settling on medical marijuana.

“First thing I did was google ‘mesothelioma’ and came away saying this is not good at all,” Huff said. “When I was first diagnosed, I went into a state of shock. My wife went into panic mode. I was preparing to die but not anymore. That picture has changed.”

Huff was fortunate to live in Northern California, where medical marijuana is easily available. He stops now once each month at Jayden’s Journey, a well-known marijuana dispensary in nearby Modesto.

The CBD oil is the nonpsychoactive concentrate extracted from the marijuana plant. He takes it twice each day with no negative side effects. He takes the THC oil, which is the psychoactive concentrate, just before bedtime and sleeps off the high it typically provides.

“The pot lovers in America are probably all saying, ‘No, no, no. You’re wasting it,’ by just going to sleep,” he said. “But personally, I don’t have time for that now. I’m not against getting high, but I don’t have time.”

Huff plays golf regularly, but he hasn’t improved too much since he retired. “I get as many swings as I can for the dollar,” he said.

Still Living His Life

He cuts his own grass with a push mower. He puppy watches for his daughter, who is a school teacher. He builds furniture for his wife. He strums the 12-string, and still takes lessons. He eats junk food, and he likes it.

“If I had to eat healthy — broccoli and stuff — I’d probably starve to death. I tell people, my life now is like going to the movies,” he said. “I don’t have time for previews or commercials. I don’t know what the future holds, so there’s no time to fool around. Just start the movie.”

Jim Huff and his wife

Jim Huff now spends his time perfecting his guitar skills and traveling with his wife.

His pace has slowed, but his life hasn’t changed much since the diagnosis.

“I really haven’t altered my lifestyle,” he said. “For the most part, I’m just living for the here and now.”

Huff spent his working life driving a truck, retiring in 2011 after 42 years. He was diagnosed with pneumonia three times in the last 20 years. And he thought this was No. 4 when he first noticed a shortness of breath a year ago.

He had almost drowned on his vacation in Mexico when he dove into the water and sank like a rock. His lungs already were filled with fluid, giving him no buoyancy to swim. He returned home and went straight to the doctor.

The biopsy that eventually confirmed the diagnosis was performed at Dameron Hospital in nearby Stockton, a place he picked because he had been there before — and loved the food they served.

Future Looks Good

It was reconfirmed at the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center, a top-rated specialty center where he has enrolled in a clinical trial that hasn’t started yet.

“I would tell anyone who is just diagnosed that this doesn’t have to be the end of the world,” he said. “I fully believe, with a little help, you can fight this. You can be victorious, or at least slow down the inevitable. I don’t know why medical marijuana is working for me, but it is right now. I’m a believer.”

Two months before he was diagnosed, his sister-in-law announced she had lung cancer, and they often talked about the fight they would wage together.

Unfortunately, she died not long ago, leaving him to ponder his future.

“There are days I forget I’m even sick. And other days I think about it a lot,” he said. “The doctors have just told me to continue doing whatever I am doing because it’s working now.”

Shortly after the initial diagnosis, his wife convinced him to sell his 2008 Shelby, a high-performance sports car that he had coddled like a baby for years. It’s a move he now regrets.

Fortunately, he sold it to his brother, and discussions have begun about a possible buy-back. The price is still being negotiated.

He also has an eye on his next guitar purchase, too, possibly a Rickenbacker, the premier guitar brand used by stars with a future.

“The last thing I want to do is become a bitter, sour old man,” he said. “I’ve had too good a life to do that. I’ve got too much going on.”

A Gulf War Veteran’s Experience with Asbestos in the Navy

From World War II to the Vietnam War, U.S. Navy shipbuilders used asbestos-containing materials extensively. Every branch of the military demanded the use of the famously fireproof mineral, and the Navy was the largest consumer of asbestos by far — until asbestosis and mesothelioma began to afflict veterans and former shipyard workers by the thousands.

Though shipbuilders began to phase out the use of asbestos in the 1970s, the military’s gargantuan asbestos-abatement task lasted well into the 1990s. To give a firsthand perspective of the issue, former Lt. Cmdr. Kevin King recently recounted his experiences with asbestos on the USS Nimitz, one of the largest warships in the world.

King began his career flying combat missions from the aircraft carrier during the First Gulf War, and he went on to serve in the U.S. Navy for 20 years.

‘ASB’: Code for Asbestos

King was commissioned as an officer in 1988 but started interacting with Navy ships and aircraft in 1985 as a midshipman in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC).

Though he distinctly remembered his childhood elementary school shutting down for several months for asbestos removal, initially he didn’t think much about asbestos aboard ships or in aircraft.

“For those of us serving, we had to assume to some degree or another that those in charge had our best interests in mind,” King told “But that was not always the case.”

King became aware of the military’s asbestos issue during his first cruise in 1991, when he observed the work of inspection teams touring the USS Nimitz to identify hazardous materials.

“I remember walking down the passageways after their visits and seeing ‘ASB’ written and circled in grease pencil all over the ship!” he said. As a Navy pilot, King knew dozens of acronyms, but “ASB” was unfamiliar to him. Many manufacturers, however, had been using the abbreviation to mark asbestos-containing materials for decades.

USS Nimitz

Commissioned in 1975, the USS Nimitz is currently the Navy’s longest-serving aircraft carrier.

Asbestos materials were used to insulate the ship’s steam pipes and HVAC ducting as well as provide protection to critical components such as pumps, valves and electrical gear. Seeing the Navy go to such great lengths to find and mark these materials made the young aviator curious, but finding information about “ASB” was hard in the days before the internet, and the military used this to their advantage.

Navy officials were not about to widely publish the issues staring service members in the face via coded grease pencil warnings, and King said most of his fellow service members on the USS Nimitz probably didn’t think twice about it.

“The Navy wouldn’t put us in such an unsafe environment, would they?” he asked.

It turned out to be a naïve assumption to make. With the benefit of hindsight, however, King made sure to highlight the complexity of the issue.

“To be fair to the Navy, there was no easy fix. The carriers simply couldn’t be taken offline for the many weeks or months it would take to remove and replace these materials,” King said. “There was a war going on in 1991, and the Navy was needed across the globe.”

Stripping Layers of Asbestos on an Aircraft Carrier

King’s first direct involvement with asbestos came after the war, when he served as the first lieutenant for his squadron in 1992–93. He described the position as the “janitor of the command,” in charge of keeping spaces clean and in good working order.

At the time, the squadron’s commanding officer wanted a new tile floor put into the ready room, where the squadron was briefed and debriefed for flight operations. When they investigated what it would take to do this, the squadron discovered three layers of old tile would have to be pulled first.

That required a special work order, and when the ship’s personnel removed a patch of tile for examination, it tested positive for asbestos.

Ready Room

Multiple layers of asbestos-containing tile had to be abated from the squadron’s ready room.

It had been acceptable in the Navy to tile over asbestos, because in the minds of earlier commanders, that “fixed the problem in place.” But to get the old tile up now required a great deal of work and precaution. The military had begun to give asbestos abatement the attention it deserved.

Because members of the squadron were not trained or equipped to safely remove asbestos-containing materials, they called in private contractors while the ship was in port at the former Naval Base Bremerton. The contractors isolated the entire ready room from the adjoining spaces, put a negative-pressure system with proper filtration in place, and wore full exposure suits with respirators while working in the hazardous area.

“After that, the dangers of asbestos became crystal clear to me,” King recalled.

A Sea Change in Navy Policy on Asbestos

To explain the scale of the asbestos-exposure risks that once haunted the USS Nimitz, King described how the interior of a Navy warship is designed for function over form. Wiring, HVAC ducts and pipes for water and steam are left exposed to help with maintenance and damage control. All these components have insulation on them to prevent condensation, heat loss and injury to personnel — and originally, much of this insulation had contained asbestos.

The USS Nimitz had been designed and built during the 1960s and 1970s, when the use of asbestos-based insulation was just as ubiquitous in the civilian sector as it was in the military. Unbeknownst to rank-and-file shipyard workers, sailors and construction workers alike, most types of asbestos insulation release toxic dust when damaged or cut, particularly as the materials become brittle with age.

In addition, crewmen routinely used asbestos cement to repair boiler rooms in ships, which released toxic clouds of dust into enclosed ventilation systems whenever a new batch of cement was mixed.

In King’s summation, the ship designers of the era had thought the benefit of using fire-resistant asbestos products to maintain the safety of the ship, especially in combat, outweighed whatever health risk there was from asbestos exposure. Tragically, the long latency period of asbestos-related diseases allowed builders and military officials to cling to this illusion for decades, until the mounting health consequences finally compelled the military to perform an about-face in policy.

Now, around 10,000 U.S. veterans die from asbestos-related diseases each year, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs continues to struggle with the volume of asbestos-exposure VA claims filed by those exposed to asbestos in all branches of the military.

King wrote soberly about the asbestos-exposure risks he witnessed firsthand, but he gave the Navy credit for the precautions it has taken since abandoning the use of asbestos.

“Asbestos was a real problem for the Navy,” King said, “But I can tell you from personal experience they go to great lengths to ensure the protection of their people.”

Caring for Parents Despite Sibling Rivalries

Despite living in different states and having significant age differences, my siblings and I have a pretty solid relationship.

We visit each other as often as schedules allow and video chat weekly to help maintain our emotional bonds. Being close to one another requires a coordinated effort from all of us. We don’t let the miles that separate us hinder our intimate connection.

A few months ago, we got a call informing us our mother was rushed to the hospital by ambulance.

For several days, Mom had flu-like symptoms and chest congestion. Her neighbor called 911 after seeing her with labored breathing. We were all worried about Mom, and the entire situation terrified me.

Following an 11-day hospital stay to treat a pulmonary infection, Mom felt much better.

The doctor let her return home to continue healing. Her illness forced our family to consider how we might provide in-home care, if necessary.

After losing my dad to mesothelioma years earlier, the time had come where my siblings and I had to make caregiving for mom possible.

Many Adult Children Become Parental Caregivers

It is important for families to understand how relationships transform in the caregiving experience, especially when siblings coordinate care for their parents.

My family is not unlike most. My siblings and I have our differences. During Mom’s hospital stay, my brother and I had words. We weren’t even caregivers yet, and we were already fighting.

With a parent diagnosed with mesothelioma or any other serious illness, family tensions tend to skyrocket.

Many adult children choose to become family caregivers, a complicated process for most families. There isn’t a preparatory course that teaches people the ins and outs of providing care. Sometimes the role isn’t a choice, but rather a necessity.

When siblings collectively fill the caregiver role, sorting out the details might be even more challenging.

To understand more about how my brother, sister and I might work together in providing parental care, I needed some guidance. I turned to the Family Caregiver Alliance, a community-based, nonprofit organization.

The FCA began serving as a resource for caregivers in the 1970s. I found some useful information that could help me coordinate with my brother and sister.

The Initial Shock of Diagnosis

It is usually a devastating conversation when family members first hear that someone they love is seriously ill. According to the FCA, being asked to serve as a parental caregiver is unnerving for many adult children.

Some may doubt their abilities to serve in such a capacity. It is easy to cast a doubtful eye toward sibling’s capabilities as well.

With a parent facing a serious illness, siblings may fuel the long-extinguished fires of childhood rivalry. When families face cancer together, heated emotions can take the place of sensibility.

Adult children will worry about their parent’s well-being and develop ideas about the details of providing care for their loved one.

Your siblings may forcefully present caregiving plans that invalidate your ideas and feelings. Communication of this sort might feel an awful lot like familiar fights from childhood.

Avoiding Buried Hatchets

With Mom in the hospital, my brother and I fell into familiar roles.

He was the overbearing older brother, and I was the teenage drama queen. In the heat of the moment, we both went to digging up childhood hatchets we had buried years ago.

I hadn’t called to relay pertinent information promptly, demonstrating my former irresponsibility. My brother had unrealistic expectations that I couldn’t possibly meet. We both got a little angry.

The FCA presents a solution for revived sibling rivalry: Compassion.

It is important to have a mutual understanding that each person brings something essential to the caregiver table. Everyone can fill the role in a way for which they are best suited.

Showing your siblings that you value their thoughts and opinions can help foster better communication. Sharing sentiments and emotions is sure to convey the support all family members deserve, especially in a time of need.

Building a Caregiver Plan

Sometimes the transition into the caregiving experience happens too quickly to carefully plan who will fill each role.

When facing a serious illness, time for planning is a luxury. If providing parental care, siblings may not consider duties from other perspectives.

It can be difficult to decide who is going to do what. A sick parent might need immediate care which adds to the coordination challenge.

While building a plan that accommodates everyone, it might help to work on a provisional layout with the understanding that duties will likely change.

During the planning phase, it may help to call a family meeting to help in the decision-making process. Siblings should center the discussion on the needs of their parent while making accommodations for each other.

Always keep in mind that every family member invests their heart into their personal caregiver experience.

Re-Evaluating Former Roles

When creating the caregiver plan, siblings might make considerations based on childhood assumptions about each other.

It might be a challenge to disregard former family labels such as “the smart one” or “the problem child.” According to the FCA, determining parental caregiver roles requires a fresh examination of the adult lives and preferences of those involved.

As people grow and develop in adulthood, many of their habits and behavioral tendencies transform as well. Decisions about who will do which duty warrant a current assessment of skills, availability and willingness to participate.

If one person was a math whiz in grade school, others shouldn’t assume that person is best-suited for the financial aspects of care. Asking questions and kindly sharing thoughts helps to define everyone’s current abilities.

Facing a serious diagnosis isn’t easy for any family. It is during those times that family members need each other the most.

Siblings should examine the situation objectively while understanding that the newly diagnosed parent’s needs are most important. When is fighting a serious illness, the last thing they should worry about is their children’s squabbles.

Asbestos and Fire Is a Deadly Mix

Peter and Justine Upton and their three young children never imagined that they wouldn’t return to the place they called home after their neighbor’s asbestos shed exploded and burst into flames last September.

The young Australian family’s unfortunate situation aired on a current affairs program earlier this month. It was a harrowing tale of a loving family torn apart by circumstances beyond their control and highlights the danger posed by structures containing asbestos within our communities.

Recounting the events of that fateful night, Peter Upton told the show that he feared for his family’s life when strong winds sent flames from the burning shed towards their Australind property.

As the thick acrid smoke made its way into the house, his only thought was to get his family and dog into the car and to safety. In the chaos that followed, he remembers being hit by multiple fragments of exploding shed matter that showered his house and yard.

“I didn’t know it was exploding asbestos at the time,” he said.

By morning, he and Justine could see asbestos fragments everywhere. Some were as big as dinner plates, covering the front and back yard, both balconies, the children’s playground equipment and even the dog’s bed.

In the aftermath of the fire, the Upton’s was one of five neighboring properties affected by asbestos contamination.

On their property alone, a staggering 33 pounds of asbestos was found. A series of tests conducted within the Upton’s home revealed that deadly asbestos dust made its way inside and covered much of the furnishings and personal possessions.

The Shire of Harvey deemed the house unsafe for habitation.

Time and Separation Puts Family at Breaking Point

Eight long months have passed since the Upton’s lives were torn apart.

Thwarted by their neighbor’s insurance company’s refusal to take responsibility for the devastation caused to their property and their belief that the damage should not be addressed by their own insurance company — no resolution is in sight and the Upton’s life remains in turmoil.

Separated by necessity, Peter still lives in Australind while Justine and the children share a bedroom in her parent’s home 2,500 miles away in Wollongong.

When the Upton’s talk about the situation they are in, their heartache is palpable.

“It’s devastating. It’s broken our family. We’re not a whole family unit anymore,” Justine said. “Our house was our life, our security, our castle. We just want to go home.”

Sadly, the home they know and miss can never be their castle again.

Rebuilding from Scratch

“Today Tonight” accompanied Peter when he recently paid an emotional visit to the house he fled all those months ago.

Protected by masks, they gazed upon the sad reminders of a lifestyle lost. Yellow stickers — a testament to asbestos contamination — were everywhere; on food, clothing, furniture and private possessions.

Peter knows there is no chance of ever reclaiming his house or his family’s belongings again.

Already deeply concerned about the consequences of his and his family’s exposure to asbestos during the fire, he believes the only way to make sure all asbestos contamination is removed from his property is for the house to be completely demolished and 6 inches of soil removed from the front and back yard.

Only then can he begin the arduous task of rebuilding his family’s life.

Asbestos and Fire: What You Need to know

Most Australian homes built before 1990 likely contain asbestos in one form or another — commonly flat cement sheeting that has been reinforced (bonded) with 10 to 15 percent of asbestos fibers.

Often referred to as “fibro,” the sheets were extensively used in the building industry for walls and ceilings. Corrugated fibro sheets, known as “super six,” were also used for roofing and fences surrounding the properties.

In good condition, cement sheeting does not pose health risks. However, when involved in a fire, the sheeting becomes potentially deadly because of the intense heat and a reaction known as spalling — a build-up of steam within the cement matrix that causes it to explode.

The major concern regarding asbestos-related fires is the debris left behind in the form of fragments or bundles of asbestos fibers that have spread over a large area as a result of the spalling.

Asbestos contamination can be found within ash and dust after and during an asbestos fire as well as in water runoff from firefighting efforts.

Exposure to asbestos can lead to a person developing mesothelioma, a deadly cancer. Typically, 30 to 50 years goes by between exposure and the onset of the disease.

Steps to take after an asbestos fire include:

· Avoiding exposure and reducing disruption and cross-contamination of asbestos. Do not enter the area.

· Immediately seeking professional advice and arranging for an asbestos risk assessment. Be aware that this may result in demolition.

· Arranging for an accredited and licensed asbestos removal contractor to remove and dispose all asbestos fire debris in a controlled and safe manner.

· Requesting independent asbestos analysis of atmospheric testing before, during and after removal of debris and the issuing of an asbestos clearance report.

Losing your home can be devastating, but it is important to be mindful of the dangers of asbestos exposure and take the proper measures keep your family safe.

Mesothelioma Treatment May Affect Your Vision

My dad always wore glasses or contacts to correct his nearsightedness.

After his mesothelioma diagnosis, Dad started chemotherapy and began to notice some differences with his vision.

However, dealing with the cancer took precedence over any eye issues.

Dad stopped wearing contacts because his eyes became dry. We figured it was allergies or the central heat unit. He wore his glasses instead, not giving the issue much thought.

But a little further into his treatment, Dad’s vision worsened.

Eventually, we moved his recliner closer to the TV so he could see. Our family had no idea his cancer treatment was affecting his eyesight.

Monitoring Vision and Eye Issues

Following my recent vision correction surgery, extreme dryness led me to research all things eye related on the internet. I stumbled across the website for Cancer Research UK, a European organization recognized as a global leader in cancer research.

Reading about the ocular side effects associated with cancer treatments instantly reminded me of Dad’s eye issues. Like Dad, many cancer patients undergoing treatment may be unaware of the link between their cancer therapy and certain ocular side effects that they experience.

According to Cancer Research UK, if a patient is having treatment-related eye or vision problems, the most likely culprit is chemotherapy or targeted therapy. Although these treatments are designed to fight cancer, they can also change the way your eyes function.

Discussing the possible side effects of cancer treatment with your oncology team is important. Your doctor can likely address any eye problems or refer you to an ophthalmologist if your symptoms are more troublesome.

Vision Changes Cancer Patients May Experience

When we think of chemotherapy side effects, we usually think of the more common adverse symptoms such as nausea and fatigue.

However, experiencing changes in vision during and after cancer treatment is a relatively common occurrence.

Some potential changes include:

  • Blurry vision
  • Reduced vibrancy in color perception
  • Reduced clarity
  • Halos around light sources

Treatment-related changes in vision may subside following the completion of therapy, but the issues might persist beyond the end of treatment. It is important to discuss these with your oncologist.

Cancer patients might need to see an optician to explore vision correction if the symptoms don’t go away.

Eye Problems Associated with Cancer Therapy

Some patients might experience ocular side effects associated with cancer-fighting drugs. These symptoms might be mildly irritating or require treatment from the doctor.

Be sure to mention your particular ocular issues to your oncologist.

Photophobia (Sensitivity to Light)

Some of the drugs associated with photophobia — or light sensitivity — include cytarabine, fluorouracil, and photodynamic therapy drugs. Patients may experience eye pain when exposed to sunlight or bright indoor lighting.

Patients experiencing photophobia might use sunglasses to shield their eyes from the sun and bright lights. It might also be helpful to use a lamp with a low wattage bulb instead of overhead fluorescent lighting.

Doctors can also prescribe steroidal eye drops to treat the sensitivity, if necessary.

Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye)

Chemotherapy and other cancer treatments can inhibit the body’s ability to fight off infections such as conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye. Having a weakened immune system makes patients more susceptible to this type of infection.

Some of the symptoms include eye itchiness, pus drainage, swollen eyelids, weeping eyes and sensitivity to light.

Your doctor can determine if the infection is viral or bacterial. Patients can combat viral conjunctivitis with frequent hand washing and avoiding shared towels. Bacterial eye infections may require treatment with prescriptions from the doctor.

Dry and Sore Eyes

Cancer-fighting drugs can cause a reaction in the underside of patient’s eyelids.

Sometimes the cancer treatments lead to a reduction in the body’s ability to produce tears and natural lubrication in the eyes.

Ophthalmologists call this keratoconjunctivitis sicca. Patients undergoing cancer treatment may experience eye dryness that feels sandy or gritty. The dryness can also cause soreness and significant discomfort.

Your doctor might suggest using artificial tears or prescribe an ophthalmic ointment to ease the dryness and simulate natural lubrication. It is important to avoid activities such as swimming in chlorinated pools that might make symptoms worse.


People might think of cataracts as a side effect of getting older, but patients receiving chemotherapy and targeted therapy are at an increased risk of developing this medical condition.

Cloudy or blurred vision and deteriorated night vision are signs of cataracts. Some people become aware of the problem when their vision prescription changes more frequently.

Cataracts can require surgical intervention to remove them if they become severe.

Be Aware of Warning Signs and Report Vision Changes

It is important to discuss vision changes with your oncologist. They can help patients understand the risks of using certain types of cancer drugs.

Dad never thought about his cancer treatment interfering with his vision or causing the gritty feeling he found so troublesome.

He simply dealt with it by moving closer to the television and using over-the-counter lubricating drops.

Perhaps if we’d known the two could be related, Dad’s doctors could have prescribed medication to help.

The good thing about ocular side effects of cancer treatment is they usually go away on their own.

If the symptoms are more troublesome and require attention, your oncologist can help. There are many different medication options to make patients as comfortable as possible.

Healing Touch Can Soothe Mesothelioma Patient, Caregiver

From my first memory, I have known the comfort that human touch can bring, but never have I appreciated it more than when caregiving for my husband Brian during his mesothelioma illness.

The grief I suffered knowing there was no cure for his asbestos-related cancer sometimes became so overwhelming that my body would ache, especially between my shoulder blades.

Although nothing could take away the pain of losing the love of my life, a loving hug from a family member or friend never failed to bring some comfort.

Losing Focus and Finding It Again

When Brian died, I felt like a ship without a rudder. For more than 30 years, he was the center of my universe.

Now with nothing to focus on but my loss, I walked aimlessly around my empty house missing him in every room. Despite my grief I came to understand the only way to find meaning in my life was to find something worthwhile to focus on.

Deciding to get back into the workforce, I began looking for a position that would challenge and reward me.

I was fortunate to be offered the position of volunteer coordinator at Solaris Cancer Care Centre, a nonprofit organization in Australia that offers a range of integrative complimentary therapies — free of charge — to cancer patients and their caregivers.

My decision rewarded me in more ways than I could ever have imagined.

Working with Cancer Patients, Caregivers

Prior to taking my role at the center, I was invited to try some of the therapies and was not surprised to discover a touch-based therapy among them.

Though I knew from experience the comfort that touch can bring, my reaction to my first session of healing touch took me by surprise. Unaccustomed to having someone focus entirely on my well-being, I found myself relaxing more than I had in a long time.

Under the practitioner’s caring hands, I felt a sense of wholeness and peace that lasted long after the session ended, and I couldn’t help thinking about how wonderful this would have been for me on my caregiving journey.

Seeking to understand why healing touch had a positive effect on my body, I researched further.

Therapy Focuses on the Body’s Energy Field

The positive effect of touch as a healing modality was first put into practice by registered nurse Janet Mentgen, who began using her energy-based healing skills in 1980.

She formally created healing touch as an energy medicine program in 1989 and certification of healing touch practitioners by the American Holistic Nurses Association began in 1993.

Healing touch is one of several energy-based or biofield therapies that focus on the energy field surrounding the body, and it is intended to be used in integration with traditional medical procedures as a noninvasive and safe method of treatment for people of all ages.

During a session, the practitioner uses their hands on or above the body to clear, energize and balance the energy fields and initiate an auto-healing response.

Healing Touch for Cancer Patients

Research has shown that healing touch therapy can be beneficial for people who have cancer, including those with mesothelioma. Though not intended as a treatment to improve survival, it is a proven method to improve quality of life.

Known benefits of healing touch for cancer patients include:

  • Improved immune response
  • Improved pain management
  • Healing of wounds
  • Illness prevention
  • Pain reduction
  • Reduction of anxiety and depression
  • Enhanced spiritual development
  • Self-care support and maintenance
  • Complimentary support for back and neck pain
  • Management of treatment side effects
  • Improved preparation for medical treatments and procedures

Healing Touch Benefits Caregivers, Too

Caregiving for a loved one with cancer, especially a cancer as demanding as mesothelioma, is a physical and emotional challenge that often results in the caregiver not maintaining their personal health and well-being.

If this continues unchecked, it can lead to a state of exhaustion known as caregiver burn-out. Taking some much-needed time to undergo energy-based therapies, such as healing touch, can be an excellent way to enjoy some relaxation while replenishing the energy bank needed to continue the caregiving role.

If healing therapy takes you away from the location of your caregiving duties, ask a friend or family member to sit with your loved one while you relax. Temporarily shifting responsibilities will alleviate any concerns you may have about leaving your loved one unattended.

During the six years I worked at Solaris, I met plenty of caregivers who told me the center’s healing touch therapies had improved their quality of life. Their positive feedback meant a lot to me and my fellow workmates.

I wore many hats during my tenure at Solaris, but I always made time to serve caregivers a hot cup of tea and lend them a listening ear. I understood what they were going through.

When this sometimes brought them to tears, I readily provided what would comfort them the most: Hugs to warm our hearts.

I found purpose and fulfilment in my life while working at Solaris. It was just what I needed to heal from the grief of losing my beloved Brian.