When Mike Mattmuller, a then-29-year-old from Maryland, began experiencing shortness of breath, he never imagined an x-ray exam would be anything more than a simple precaution. It turned out that this visit to the doctor, back in October 2011, may have been the most pivotal day of his life. Mike was told he had cancer.
What kind, though? Doctors couldn’t quite tell at first. It took another month for pathologists to deliver the news that shocked Mike and his wife Jessica. Mike had mesothelioma: an incurable cancer caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos; a disease that most often afflicts people at least twice his age. In that year, Mike was one of around 3,000 people who were also diagnosed with this rare and deadly disease.
The Mesothelioma Survival Tale Most Warriors Don’t Live to Tell
Many folks around Mike’s age who are diagnosed with a cancer as deadly as mesothelioma, don’t live long enough to become new parents. Because mesothelioma is often discovered in its later stages, a patient may only have 12 months to live after diagnosis. But last summer, Mike and Jessica welcomed a beautiful new addition to the family – their first baby, Riley Jean.
Like any parent, their top priority was keeping Riley Jean safe, happy and healthy. Not every parent has had anywhere near the rollercoaster ride Mike has experienced in his young life, and, given this, one of the many ways that Mike and Jessica protect their child is through cancer prevention. As such, the two new parents have spent the last several years battling to ban asbestos, which brings thousands of Americans to untimely and early deaths.
How Asbestos Exposure Leads to Mesothelioma
Many occupations, including construction workers, shipbuilders, mechanics, electricians, firefighters and welders to name a few, are known to be at higher risk for asbestos exposure. Asbestos-containing products were widely used in certain production and manufacturing industries through the 1980s, as manufacturers downplayed – and outright denied – associated health risks.
As research had proven then, however, there was – and still is today – no safe level of exposure to asbestos whatsoever. All it takes to develop a deadly asbestos-caused disease is one fiber of the mineral. Often 10 to 50 years can pass before symptoms develop after first exposure, and by this time, prognosis is poor.
This, of course, is where Mike’s story differs. Because Mike’s mesothelioma was detected earlier in its development, doctors were able to act.
Overcoming the Impossible
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 125 million people worldwide are exposed to asbestos in the workplace every year, asbestos-caused diseases from occupational exposure – not only mesothelioma but asbestos-related lung cancer and asbestosis – result in 107,000 deaths.
Countless others are exposed to asbestos through what’s known as “secondhand exposure,” which occurs when a person inadvertently brings asbestos home with them on their clothing or other materials, such as work equipment. These people, too, are subject to the same fatal diseases that affect so many of the world’s laborers. These people, too, are subject to untimely – and preventable – deaths.
Against all odds, Mike was not one of these cases. With the help of legal assistance, he underwent aggressive treatment in the care of outstanding surgeons and made the progress he had only dreamed of.
“Once we got past the denial and all the anger, we knew we had to do something,” Jessica remembered. After four rounds of chemotherapy, Mike finally received an extrapleural pneumonectomy in 2012, which involved removal of his left lung and its damaged lining.
This procedure signified a major turning point in a very difficult fight. Mike was fortunate enough to catch his mesothelioma at an early stage and has since has received news that his cancer has stabilized and is in remission. However, as a five-year survivor and lifelong mesothelioma warrior, this marked only the beginning of the other battle ahead.
Becoming a Beacon of Hope for Mesothelioma Survivors
Mike and his wife have committed their lives’ work to fighting on a national scale: advocating for the ban of asbestos and promoting research toward a cure.
“Going on six years now, my husband has been battling mesothelioma,” said Jessica. “Our newborn baby girl needs her daddy, and for asbestos to be banned.”
Mike has been volunteering for the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) since his diagnosis as ADAO Eastern Co-Regional Director, sharing his story at congressional staff briefings. He also served as a Mesothelioma Warrior Virtual Team captain for the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation’s 2016 Miles for Meso 5K Race, helping to show support, raise awareness and fund education. Jessica was also a team captain and, a graphic designer by trade, she helps to lead ADAO’s awareness campaigns in new creative directions.
Together, and along with their baby daughter, Mike and Jessica are a huge source of hope and support for the ADAO community and other mesothelioma warriors and their families. Bringing Riley into the world, Mike said, gave the couple fresh determination to protect the future generation from the dangers of asbestos.
“Why should I have to worry about my newborn baby girl getting mesothelioma?” he asked. “It needs to be banned immediately.”
Mike’s Priceless Gift to the World
This April, ADAO will hold its 13th Annual International Asbestos Awareness and Prevention Conference – the nation’s only nonprofit asbestos education conference – in Washington, D.C. The Mattmuller family will receive the venerated Alan Reinstein Award: a token of their enormous commitment to advocacy, education and support for countless victims, survivors and families affected by asbestos-caused disease.
“Since 2005, ADAO conferences have recognized nearly 100 internationally renowned honorees and keynote speakers whose voices and actions have been critically important to ending the man-made asbestos disaster,” said ADAO President and CEO Linda Reinstein. “As in the past, many on this year’s esteemed list also include courageous volunteers who tirelessly give their time to help build a global community of support and hope.”
An even more valuable award, of course, is what Mike has done for these families: showing them that survival is possible. And their secret, according to Jessica?