Family Grows Through Mesothelioma Survivor

Tamron Cox-Little didn’t plan her first pregnancy, but it turned into a bigger blessing than anyone could have imagined.

It probably saved her life.

Cox-Little is a 10-year, peritoneal mesothelioma survivor whose ultrasound late in that pregnancy first alerted doctors to a small and unusual growth inside her abdomen. This led to an earlier-than-normal diagnosis and a better chance of surviving this rare and aggressive cancer.

Baby Caleb was a godsend in disguise.

Cox-Little, 31, had successful cytoreductive surgery, hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) and intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) a few months after giving birth and shortly after the tumor growth was identified as mesothelioma.

She remains cancer-free a decade later, believing the tumors are gone for good because they were caught so early.

“I had mixed emotions when I first found out I was pregnant. I was young, still in college, and we weren’t married yet. I had to come to grips with that,” Cox-Little told Asbestos.com. “But everything happens for a reason. Thank God for Caleb. Who knows what would have happened without that ultrasound. God had a plan. He was watching over me.”

Sharing Success with Her Surgeon

Mesothelioma specialist Dr. Edward Levine orchestrated her care at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, reconfirming the diagnosis before the aggressive, life-changing surgery.

She returned to see Levine for regular checkups, always bringing along Caleb for good luck. And every couple years, she brought a new baby, making Levine smile broader each time.

“We laugh now because I remember asking him shortly after my surgery if I would be able to have any more children. He told me then to just be happy with the one I had,” she said. “The doctors thought the high-dose radiation had messed up my reproductive organs and I wouldn’t be able to have any more kids.”

The family now consists of husband Samuel, Caleb, 10, Caden, 7, Savannah, 5, and 3-year-old Sydney.

“They’re all healthy and happy,” Cox-Little said proudly. “Every time I took another baby to see Dr. Levine, his eyes would just get wider and wider. He’d say, ‘So, this is yours, too? Tamron, you’re amazing. You’re a walking miracle.’”

Tamron Cox-Little's family

Tamron Cox-Little was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma at just 21. An ultrasound during her first pregnancy alerted doctors of her cancer.

Early Diagnosis Was Crucial

Cox-Little has emerged as a beacon of hope in the fight against mesothelioma, which typically comes with a poor prognosis.

Although therapies, particularly for the peritoneal version, are improving, mesothelioma patients rarely live more than five years after a diagnosis.

“My family, they took it the hardest when I was first told about the cancer. You could see it on their faces. My husband, my grandmother, my aunt. They were all there,” she said. “But I really believed then — and still do now — that God wouldn’t put more on me than what I could handle. And I knew I had a great doctor.”

Cox-Little rebounded better than anyone expected. There is still no sign of cancer today.

Leading a Busy Life

Although she left the University of North Carolina at Penbroke to give birth and have surgery, she returned to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in communications, graduating with honors.

She and Samuel were married a month after surgery. They first met at UNC-Penbroke. He is a decorated Army veteran who served before college in Iraq and Afghanistan and now runs his own business from their home.

Cox-Little wrote a marriage book, “It Takes Two,” that was published in 2015. She already is working on a second one.

She became a licensed Christian minister. And she also works at a nearby hospital as a patient relations liaison, often relaying her own experience to help others through tough medical times.

“We’re all pretty busy at times here, but I’ve got a great support system. Maybe I’m bragging, but I have a really good husband who has been with me every step of the way,” she said. “Even when I was down, he was encouraging, reminding me that God would get us through the tough times. And the children have been wonderful.”

Cox-Little had never heard of mesothelioma before she was diagnosed at such an unusually young age. Maybe that was a good thing, unaware that patients usually don’t live very long after diagnosis.

Mesothelioma, which is caused by exposure to asbestos, typically has a latency period of 20 to 50 years between exposure and diagnosis.

Cox-Little suspects her exposure might have been secondhand from her grandparents’ home, where she spent considerable time as a child. Her grandfather worked construction, a high-exposure occupation.

“We stopped worrying about that,” she said. “Most doctors I’ve talked with are shocked to hear someone so young being diagnosed. But maybe I was just lucky they caught it so early, when most people never know it’s there at that stage. Without that ultrasound, who knows where we’d be now?”

Caleb is now an exceptionally bright fifth-grader and full of inspiring hope like his mother.

During Sunday school at church recently, his teacher went around the room asking each child to share some goals in life.

“He told the teacher he wanted to get a scholarship to Harvard, be a successful engineer and make $10 million,” Cox-Little said with a laugh. “That’s a true story. I always tell him, ‘Anything is possible with the strength of God.’”

VA-Accredited Claims Agents Help Veterans with Mesothelioma

A VA-accredited Claims Agent is a person who can legally represent veterans to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and assist veterans with filing claims for VA benefits. The formal certification process ensures agents who assist veterans meet the VA’s standards of professionalism.

Veterans can file claims to the VA on their own, but there are many advantages to working with an accredited agent — especially when it comes to disability claims based on rare and complex illnesses such as mesothelioma. VA-accredited agents have a thorough understanding of the VA’s documentation requirements, thanks to their training and often also their life experiences.

An accredited agent can help you understand which VA benefits you and your family may be eligible for and the application requirements for each. They can also directly assist you in completing and submitting your claim to the VA.

Claims Agents Help with Complicated Paperwork

For many veterans with service-related disabilities, trying to get their VA benefits approved feels like fighting a battle with a distant bureaucracy over confusing paperwork.

It is public knowledge the military used asbestos products extensively from the 1930s to the 1970s, causing American veterans to now bear a disproportionate burden of asbestos-related diseases. Yet, the process of getting an asbestos-related disability claim approved by the VA is anything but simple.

“The VA requires very specific evidence for the medical diagnosis of any asbestos-related disease as well as specific information about how you were exposed throughout your lifetime,” Aaron Munz of The Mesothelioma Center explained.

The VA uses a rigorous set of criteria to determine eligibility. The success of an asbestos-related disability claim depends on writing an exposure summary that details the following information:

  • Your military service
  • The job specialty you performed
  • Where you were stationed or what ship you served on
  • What type of equipment and products you worked with
  • Where and how you may have been exposed to asbestos
  • The diagnosis of the specific asbestos-related illness you are seeking benefits for

“In our experience, the exposure summary is the key factor in substantiating an asbestos-related VA claim,” Munz said.

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VA Accreditation Ensures Professionalism

Getting assistance with writing an asbestos exposure summary can be challenging, according to The Mesothelioma Center’s Danielle DiPietro.

“Asbestos-related diseases are very rare — a lot of veterans service organizations have never helped a patient with an asbestos disease. It’s important to have a full understanding of what documents need to be submitted to get the claim approved the first time around.”

Thanks to the VA accreditation process, veterans can look beyond local governments and veterans service organizations to seek the assistance of specialized patient advocates. No matter what organization a claims agent is affiliated with, the requirements for VA accreditation are the same:

  • Passing an exam to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of VA benefits
  • Passing a background check and providing personal references supporting good moral character
  • Completing three hours of continuing education every year to keep VA benefits knowledge up to date

Claims Agents Draw from Valuable Life Experiences

Very often the people who best understand how to deal with the VA benefits system are the veterans and family members who have already been through it themselves.

Aaron Munz served in the Army for nine years as an officer, and he had to navigate the VA disability system for his own service-connected injury. His experience in the Army also gave him an intimate knowledge of the many unique risks service members face.

“I understand how the military’s mission-first focus sometimes results in a lack of precautions taken for personal safety. Veterans have been asked or ordered to work under conditions that exposed them to toxic substances without knowing the dangers those may pose to their health years down the road.”

Munz listed carcinogenic chemicals, nuclear radiation, depleted uranium, toxic burn pits, Agent Orange and asbestos materials as examples of the toxic exposure risks that have been involved in military service.

Danielle DiPietro did not serve in the Army, but both her grandfathers did, and they came to rely on her to help them understand what VA resources are available to them. In addition, her family’s history with cancer inspired her personal commitment to patient advocacy.

“Being accredited by the VA allows me to help veterans suffering from asbestos-related diseases get the compensation they deserve.”

Mesothelioma Caregiver Finds Comfort in Treatment of Others

I was standing beside my husband Brian on the day he learned he had mesothelioma.

A young doctor — seemingly indifferent to our reaction — delivered the grave news, and he wasted no time in adding there was no cure for this asbestos-related cancer.

Barely able to comprehend how this could be happening, surgery was my first thought. At 52, Brian still had lots of living to do.

Despite the strongest of wills, Brian’s courageous battle with mesothelioma ended two years after his diagnosis.

Almost 16 years have passed, and since then, I have channeled my grief along more positive paths such as promoting awareness about the dangers of asbestos, and reaching out to help other mesothelioma caregivers through my book “Lean on Me” and my blogs on The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com.

Finding Comfort in Improved Education

Brian was the world to me, but he was just one of the many men and women who have lost their lives to mesothelioma. Their needless deaths are a testament to the deadly nature of asbestos, whose killing spree is far from over.

Because of the long latency period (sometimes up to 50 years) between exposure to asbestos and the onset of disease, experts predict many men and women will succumb to mesothelioma in the coming decades.

Though this news is distressing, I find it comforting to know those diagnosed with mesothelioma today and in the future won’t face Brian’s bleak prognosis.

So much has changed since he was diagnosed in 1999.

Better education regarding asbestos and asbestos related diseases has led to earlier diagnoses and wider treatment options. Medical advancements have also improved quality of life and extended lives.

Promising Treatments for Mesothelioma Patients

Through my writing and research, I’ve become more aware of the men and women who are living with mesothelioma and achieving remarkable survival rates, particularly in the U.S.

Surgeons, including Dr. David Sugarbaker, who specialized in pleural mesothelioma, and his brother Dr. Paul H. Sugarbaker, one of the nation’s innovators and top authorities on the treatment of peritoneal mesothelioma, are spearheading the search for a cure.

Promising treatments, such as immunotherapy, which harnesses the patient’s own immune system to fight the disease, have also emerged through clinical trials.

A better understanding of the importance of nutrition and the benefit of complimentary therapies has led to mesothelioma patients taking an active role in the treatment of their disease.

From experience, the one thing mesothelioma patients and their caregivers need above all else is hope.

Patients Are Beating the Odds

Like everyone who has been affected by mesothelioma, Brian fought to live.

When it came to courage and determination, he had it in spades. What he didn’t have here in Australia, however, was a doctor and medical team willing to go the distance to save his life.

Every time I acknowledge a wonderful story of survival, I cannot help but wonder what it would have meant for Brian if he had the opportunity to be operated on by Dr. David Sugarbaker or if had taken part in an immunotherapy clinical trial.

For me, there will always be feelings of regret regarding Brian’s treatment options, but I rejoice with every mesothelioma patient who is beating the odds.

Their stories of survival are a beacon of hope for everyone affected by this horrible disease.

Ojibwa Tea ‘Keeping Me Alive’

Mesothelioma survivor Linda Foreman doesn’t go anywhere now without her Ojibwa tea.

It gives her hope — and life.

Foreman, 77, believes the Native American four-herb tea has been instrumental in fighting off the peritoneal mesothelioma cancer progression.

“This tea is what’s keeping me alive. I really believe that,” she told Asbestos.com from her home in southern Oregon. “My doctor is surprised at how well I’m doing now. All the doctors I saw originally — about six of them — gave me no more than a year to live, and I’m still here.”

Doctors diagnosed Foreman in August 2015. They gave her the typical grim prognosis and told her surgery was not an option. The cancer has no definitive cure, leaving patients with a life expectancy of 9-18 months.

She underwent six weeks of chemotherapy, but it did little to halt the cancer growing in her abdomen.

“I had never heard of mesothelioma,” she said. “I came home and just cried after I was told, but then I started looking around to see what was out there.”

First Used by Ojibwe Indian Tribe

Her stepdaughter convinced her to try this unusual blend of Essiac Tea, which first came to light when Rene Caisse, an old-school Canadian nurse, started using it with cancer patients in the 1920s.

Caisse spent much of her life seeking medical validation for the tea’s cancer-fighting properties, but the pharmaceutical industry always scoffed at the idea. So did most doctors.

The Ojibwa brand of Essiac Tea is named after the Ojibwa Indians in Canada who often used medicinal herbs to treat their sick — more than a century ago.

The blend includes burdock root, slippery elm inner bark, turkey rhubarb root and sheep sorrel root, leaf, stems and seeds.

Although there is no scientific evidence the tea can stop cancer, the herbs in the mix do contain considerable antioxidants known to stimulate immune system cells.

“I don’t think the doctors understand it, but they do tell me, ‘Whatever you’re doing now, keep doing it,’” she said. “I might be wrong, but I’m not going to quit drinking the tea to find out if I am. I don’t care what I’m doing now, or where I’m at. I’ve got that tea with me. I believe in it.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved Essiac tea for the treatment of mesothelioma. Patients interested in using it as a supplemental treatment should consult their doctor first.

Foreman Still Enjoys Happy Hour

Foreman lives with her husband, and they spend their winters in Yuma, Arizona.

She has a regular oncologist in both cities. She still gets regular CT scans, and with a port still in her side, she has fluid drained from her abdomen regularly. Yet the tumors have not progressed since she started drinking the tea 18 months ago.

She drinks it religiously twice each day on an empty stomach.

“I still feel pretty good most of the time. I have some trouble breathing. I’ve slowed a lot and have my aches and pains, but I’m 77 years old,” she said. “I still try and do everything that my friends do.”

She still plays golf, something she has done most of her life, although she usually stops after nine holes. She and her friends regularly make visits to the Napa Valley vineyards in Northern California.

She walked the Las Vegas strip to see two shows in one night. She went zip-lining through the mountains in Belize, where their cruise ship had stopped for a day. She couldn’t stand the thought of being left behind.

“It was beautiful, but the hardest part was the hike up the mountain,” she said. “Getting down was easy.”

She goes shopping with her daughter who lives close. She is a regular at the local happy hour, too, and is invigorated by the socializing.

“I don’t drink, but I still go all the time. I’m just as much fun not drinking as my friends are drunk,” she said. “You don’t have to be crazy to get crazy. And I can still party hardy.”

Returning to Winter Home in Arizona

As usual, they will leave for Yuma in late October, but she will leave wondering if she is closing the door to their home for the last time. It’s always in the back of her mind.

Doctors have told her the cancer could return at any time — and return with a vengeance.

“Last time I went back to Arizona and walked into the doctor’s office, his mouth dropped open. He couldn’t believe how healthy I still looked,” she said. “I don’t think he ever thought he’d see me again. Most people who I meet still can’t even tell that I have this problem.”

Foreman also takes a teaspoon of baking soda each day, theorizing that the alkalinity discourages cancer growth. She takes vitamin B17, which is known as a controversial, natural form of chemotherapy. Neither has been medically proven to help fight cancer, but they are part of her routine.

She has had two friends die from cancer recently — one from mesothelioma — but neither was interested in drinking her Ojibwa tea.

“[Doctors] won’t even blink an eye when I tell them about it,” she said. “It’s weird, but it’s working. I’ve still got [mesothelioma], but it’s not growing. It has not changed at all. And I’m going back to Arizona.”

What You Need to Know

Most mesothelioma cancer patients and their families know lymph nodes are important, but they don’t necessarily know why.

There are many long, intimidating medical terms you might never hear until you or a loved one receives a rare diagnosis such as pleural mesothelioma.

However, even short words from a doctor can be confusing for cancer patients and their families. After all, just what is a lymph node, and how does the lymphatic system work?

It’s often difficult to find a simple explanation of what your lymphatic system does and why doctors are so concerned about cancer cells getting into it.

But once you understand the basics, you’ll have one less unfamiliar medical term to wonder about.

In essence:

  • Lymph is a fluid that carries waste products from your veins and tissues.
  • Lymph nodes filter that fluid to stop infections from spreading.
  • If cancer cells spread through the lymphatic system, it may rule out tumor-removing surgery as a treatment option.

Killing Germs Before They Enter Bloodstream

Lymph removes contaminants, such as viruses and bacteria, from your tissues and blood. Lymph vessels flow through a series of filters called lymph nodes, where lymphocytes, which are a type of white blood cell, kill dangerous microorganisms.

Your lymphatic system plays a vital role in your body’s overall immune system because it keeps infections from spreading.

After lymph is filtered through the 500–700 nodes in the human body, it drains back into the bloodstream near the heart, becoming normal blood again.

Unlike the circulatory system which relies on the heart to pump blood throughout the body, the lymphatic system doesn’t have its own pump. Instead, each node acts as a one-way valve, and the lymph is squeezed upward through the lymph vessels when you move your muscles.

If you don’t move, your lymph doesn’t either. That’s why it is important to stay physically active.

When your lymphatic system is dealing with an infection in a particular area, your lymph nodes swell in or near that area.

Certain lymph nodes are so close to your skin you can feel them with your fingers or see them with the naked eye when they are swollen. This is what doctors are checking for when they feel around your ears and neck to see if you are getting sick.

Cancer Cells in Lymph Nodes Signal Late-Stage Cancer

Sometimes cancer cells break from the main part of a tumor and drift away, potentially to grow into a new tumor elsewhere in the body. Doctors call this process metastasis.

The lymphatic system can catch stray cancer cells and trap them in lymph nodes, but there is always a danger that once cancer cells start getting into the lymphatic system, they will overwhelm each lymph node in their way, one by one, until they finally enter the bloodstream.

The most common staging system for pleural mesothelioma is the TNM system, in which cancer first forms at stage 1 and becomes most serious at stage 4. In this system, the N stands for “node” because any cancer spread into lymph nodes automatically signifies late-stage cancer — even if the main tumor mass is still small.

When cancer cells spread into nearby lymph nodes, it usually signals stage 3 cancer. By the time cancerous cells reach distant lymph nodes, a stage 4 cancer diagnosis is most likely.

PET Scans Can Reveal Cancer in Lymph Nodes

Doctors can look for cancerous spread into lymph nodes by using a positron emission tomography (PET) scan. When you get a PET scan, doctors first inject you with a mildly radioactive type of sugar, which is absorbed by cancer cells faster than other cells. The PET scan picks up the radiation from the sugar, revealing where the cancer cells are in the body.

Determining the correct cancer stage is an important part of an accurate mesothelioma diagnosis because the stage guides doctors in developing a treatment plan.

  • In general, early-stage cancer is considered resectable, which means a surgeon may be able to remove the tumor through surgery if the patient is in otherwise good health.
  • Late-stage cancer is usually considered unresectable, which means the medical team must rely on nonsurgical cancer therapies such as chemotherapy or immunotherapy.

Only an experienced mesothelioma specialist can ensure an accurate diagnosis and the best possible treatment plan. But becoming a well-informed patient guarantees you’ll be prepared to ask questions about your diagnosis, especially when it comes to your lymphatic system and its role in your cancer.