On July 1, Ken Smith was issued a death sentence.
A Billings oncologist looked the 68-year-old man in the eye and said, “You have a fatal disease called mesothelioma.”
As Smith understood it, his only shot at longevity was chemotherapy — and it was a long one at that.
Mesothelioma is a deadly form of cancer that most often affects the tissue surrounding the lungs. Smith’s right lung was wrapped in tumors like bacon around a filet mignon.
It was Stage 3.
Patients with Stage 3 mesothelioma typically have a short prognosis, ranging anywhere from a few months to more than a year after diagnosis. Treatments are available, but there is no cure.
Smith, of Billings, was given a maximum of two years — but that was generous.
He balked, vehemently refusing to accept the death sentence.
“Cancer is something you think is never going to happen to you, then it does,” Smith said.
He is one of an estimated 3,000 Americans who have been, or will be, diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma this year.
He doesn’t know for sure when — or even where — where he contracted the deadly cancer that stole 40 pounds from his lean frame.
Factors that might increase the risk of mesothelioma include a personal history of asbestos exposure, living with someone who works with asbestos and a monkey virus used in polio vaccines.
The asbestos industry grew rapidly by the early 1900s, and by 1905 the United States’ many asbestos manufacturers produced 2,820 tons of asbestos – all for domestic use. Most asbestos products can be categorized as either construction or automotive materials, though some were general. Some of the most popular asbestos product uses included insulation, automotive parts, cement and textiles.
Smith said he could have been exposed to asbestos while scraping lead paint off his garage, removing insulation from his attic or working as a mechanic in the U.S. Navy from 1964-68.
It doesn’t really matter. Smith has it. He is left to deal with the fallout.
Refusing to accept his physician’s diagnosis, he began scouring websites. He spent weeks on his computer, vetting websites and searching for answers, even a possible cure. He became fanatical about studying the illness, clinging to every morsel of information he could glean. He found a nonprofit organization that intrigued him, www.curemeso.org, and reached out.
It wasn’t long before he received a list of mesothelioma specialists in the country — Boston, Chicago, Minnesota.
He settled on a specialist in Chicago — the director of the Mesothelioma Program at the University of Chicago Medicine.
She offered him the option of a “radical, possibly life-threatening surgery.”
It was a risk; it was also an option.
His response? “Let’s go for it.”
During a six-hour surgery in August, the lower one-third of his right lung and chest cavity were removed. Part of his diaphragm and part of the lining around his heart were also extracted.
He spent two weeks post-surgery in the hospital and five weeks in Chicago while healing.
“It’s great to be home,” he said, showing the magnitude of his scar.
His latest CT scan shows “microscopic” traces of cancer, according to Smith. He is hoping chemotherapy treatment will help keep the cancer suppressed.
“The best I can hope for is that I may be able to treat this like a chronic disease, like diabetes,” Smith said.
His Chicago physician is now consulting with his Billings physician to begin chemotherapy.
Smith wanted to share his story to inspire others who receive a cancer diagnosis. Hearing the C-word is not a death sentence, he said.
“It is not hopeless,” he said.
His message is multifaceted: Always get a second opinion, don’t blindly accept the initial diagnosis, become an expert on your cancer or diagnosis and be active in your own medical care.
There are time when he still gets winded exerting himself or when climbing the stairs. It is a minor inconvenience to the alternative, he said.
“If I can be sitting here seven years from now with a decent quality of life, it beats the heck out of one or two years,” Smith said. “If I’d done nothing I would have been dead in six months to a year.”