Steve McQueen and Mesothelioma

In recent weeks, the Hollywood press has reported that there could be a film based on author Marshall Terrill’s bookSteve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel. For those of a certain generation, no actor personified COOL like Steve McQueen. It seems hard to imagine, but the star of Bullitt, The Getaway, The Sand Pebbles, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair and The Towering Inferno, has been gone for more than 30 years. McQueen’s zest for life is well known. He raced motorcycles and cars, flew airplanes, dated and married beautiful women (Neile Adams, Ali MacGraw and Barbara Minty). Although McQueen smoked cigarettes and was known to use recreational drugs, he also followed a rigorous exercise routine that at various times included weightlifting, running and martial arts. Steve McQueen worked hard and played very hard.

The legacy left by Steve McQueen is certainly one of terrific films, but it is also that of a cultural icon. Like Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy and Elvis, the interest in Steve McQueen years after his death is no doubt due in part to the fact that he died so young. McQueen died on November 7, 1980 at the age of 50. He was not killed doing one of his own movie stunts or in a spectacular racing crash. It was not the cigarettes or drugs that killed him. Rather, Steve McQueen died in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico after undergoing an operation to remove metastasized cancerous tumors from his neck and liver.

Steve McQueen was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma in December 1979. Less than 4 months later, doctors in the United States told him there was nothing else they could do to prolong his life. Never one to give up, McQueen embraced controversial non-traditional cancer treatments. He was treated by William Donald Kelley, who claimed that certain foods could increase tumors and other foods could bolster the body’s defenses to defeat cancer. Although Kelley was offering cancer therapy, he was not an oncologist. Rather, Dr. Kelley had been a licensed orthodontist. Kelley’s therapy did not work for McQueen, whose tumors grew ever larger. McQueen ended up flying to Juarez, checking into a low-income clinic under an assumed name and dying of cardiac arrest shortly after undergoing the surgery that U.S. doctors had told him he could not survive.

Several months before McQueen’s death, he gave a medical interview to a doctor at UCLA in which he blamed his mesothelioma on asbestos exposure. Asbestos is the name commonly given to six fibrous minerals that occur naturally in the environment, and which are used in commercial products. The six types of asbestos are chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite asbestos, tremolite asbestos, and actinolite asbestos. Asbestos fibers are tiny, and too small to be seen with the naked eye.

Asbestos fibers are woven together or incorporated within other materials to create products that are resistant to abrasion, inert to acid and alkaline solutions and stable at high temperatures. Asbestos has been used for heat insulation, fire-proofing and sound absorption. The ship building industry used asbestos extensively to insulate steam pipes, boilers, hot water pipes and nuclear reactors in ships. McQueen thought that the asbestos used in movie soundstage insulation and the asbestos found in race car drivers’ fire suits may have caused his mesothelioma, but he most strongly associated his exposure to asbestos while he served in the United States Marine Corps, where he recalled removing asbestos lagging from pipes aboard a ship.

Since McQueen’s death in 1980, there have been terrific advances in the care and treatment of Mesothelioma. Although the disease remains almost always fatal, surgical interventions that can prolong life have dramatically improved. There have been breakthroughs in other areas including more precise ways to diagnose the disease, targeted radiation therapy and the brand new novel targeted agents that help the human body fight mesothelioma cancer. There are now a number of national and regional medical centers with sections or departments dedicated to the care of patients suffering from mesothelioma. Houston’s MD Anderson has emerged in recent years as one of the groundbreaking cancer research facilities in the United States and also has become one of the largest treatment centers for those suffering from mesothelioma. Hopefully never again will desperate patients, like Steve McQueen, have no choice but to seek out untried, unproven, unapproved therapies and treatments to battle mesothelioma. Hopefully too, the producers of the movie about Steve McQueen’s life will shine a new light upon the deadly disease that is mesothelioma, and will tell the tale of McQueen’s extraordinary efforts to live.

Categories: Mesothelioma