It was Cheryl Cotton’s third time attending the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation’s annual International Symposium on Malignant Mesothelioma when I met her this past June. We were both seated in the hotel lobby, waiting for a bus to take us to Capitol Hill, where we would ask our legislators to support a complete ban of asbestos and for funding for mesothelioma research.
I think it was Cheryl who introduced herself first, and I was delighted to hear she was from my home state, Alabama, about two and a half hours north of Montgomery, in Anniston. When I told her I was from Montgomery, she was ecstatic to finally find someone with a meso connection in her home state.
Cheryl lost her husband, Virgil, to mesothelioma on May 31, 2005, just two days after their 40th wedding anniversary. She began attending the Meso Foundation conference almost immediately, urgently needing to connect with others who might understand what she was going through, and to make sense of a disease that took her best friend and love of her life before either of them fully realized what was happening.
Virgil first began to notice something was wrong in late March 2004, when he had a severe pain in his side. His hobby was restoring vintage automobiles, and he had been working on a friend’s car, so he thought he had possibly just bruised a muscle while working. But shortly after that he developed a terrible cough.
“It was a whole-body cough,” Cheryl recalls. “Like from head to toe.”
Virgil went to see his doctor, who thought the cough might be related to a drug he was taking following a heart catheterization, which he’d had earlier that year.
“The doctor said it would take 60 days or so to get the drug out of his system, so basically for two months we did nothing,” Cheryl says. “The pain in his side persisted, and the cough got worse. Right up until this time, after his heart problems, he had been dedicated to cardiovascular exercise and eating right. He was probably in the best shape he’d been in for years. He would actually get onto to me about exercising more and eating right,” she recalls with a laugh before turning sober again. “So this was just odd. He kept feeling sicker and sicker.”
He went back to the doctor, thinking maybe there was something wrong with his heart. Tests showed his heart was fine, and doctors sent him home and told him to just continue to exercise and eat right.
But Virgil began having trouble breathing. It was September by now. He visited the doctor again, and was referred to a pulmonary specialist for a thoracentesis. They found fluid in his lungs, but tests came back negative for cancer or any type of infection. But the fluid came back almost immediately.
Cheryl was getting really worried.
“He was used to being active, but now he could hardly get around. He had no energy,” she remembers. “We had requested referrals to see some doctors in Birmingham, because he was dying in front of me. I knew there was something more going on, and I couldn’t understand why nobody could tell us. We had two more thoracenteses and still no diagnosis. The local doctors said they didn’t know what was wrong with him.”
At this point, Cheryl decided to call Birmingham, and talked to a nurse at UAB Medical Center. She got a referral for a pulmonary specialist, and made an appointment for Virgil the following week. But when they got to see the doctor, he said Virgil actually should see a thoracic surgeon, and gave them another referral. They gathered all Virgil’s test results and visited the thoracic surgeon on December 14. An initial theory was that Virgil might have a collapsed lung and scar tissue.
“Virgil had really gone downhill,” Cheryl said. “He was aging. Things had fallen apart in nine months, since the first symptoms.”
Doctors decided to do a thoractomy, but because it was Christmastime, they decided to wait until January, telling Virgil and Cheryl to go home and enjoy the holidays with their family. He finally had the surgery Jan. 4, and they first heard the word mesothelioma. But the diagnosis still wasn’t definite until about 10 days later.
“At that point it was stage 2+ or 3-. It was already advanced. We were referred to a doctor for chemotherapy, but still nobody was really telling us much about what this diagnosis meant. We had no idea.”
Virgil underwent a series of chemotherapy treatments, and then on April 20 began receiving radiation at a cancer center in Birmingham.
“By then, his breathing had deteriorated and they’d put him on oxygen,” Cheryl said. “He’d really not been able to lie flat since September. He had to prop up in a recliner or on a pallet on the floor.”
On May 19, a Thursday morning, Virgil woke Cheryl and told her something was wrong and that he felt he needed to go to the hospital. They went to UAB. On May 21, the doctor came in and told them Virgil was not improving, and that he didn’t have long to live. She estimated two and half to three months, and advised them to get their affairs in order.
“This was the first time anyone really talked to us about dying. Everyone was telling us he had time, that there was all this time.”
They called in Hospice care, and their daughter, Pam, came to visit, bringing their grandson and making a video of Virgil and the boy. On May 30, Virgil began doing worse, and passed away the next day. This was just nine days after they’d first been told that Virgil’s condition was terminal, and about 15 months since his first symptoms.
Cheryl was in shock. “He was 60 years old and had been in prime health,” she says. “When he died, he looked like he was 90. I didn’t even realize how bad he looked because I guess I saw him every day. Months later, I watched the video Pam had made just before he died, and then I really saw it.”
Virgil’s illness had been such a whirlwind; Cheryl wasn’t quite sure what to do after his death. She still couldn’t quite believe it had even happened. She was angry, that Virgil went so long with no diagnosis and no treatment. She felt guilty, like she ought to have somehow known more, or done more. And she felt alone.
Some time after Virgil was diagnosed with mesothelioma, Cheryl found the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the elimination of mesothelioma through outreach, education and funding research efforts to find a cure. She also connected with Sue Vento, the widow of Sen. Bruce Vento of Minnesota, after whom the pending “Bruce Vento Ban Asbestos and Prevent Mesothelioma” legislation before the U.S. Congress was named.
“She emailed me and I think called me, too,” Cheryl says. “She sent me a book on meso as well. She was the calm in the middle of my storm, and has kept in touch with me during this time via emails.”
Following Virgil’s death, Cheryl decided to attend the Meso Foundation’s annual International Symposium on Malignant Mesothelioma, and packed her bags for the trip to Washington, D.C. Many of her friends couldn’t understand it, but she says it was something she had to do.
“I somehow found MARF and the main reason I went to the conference that first year was to have someone to share this pain, and try to come to some conclusions,” she said. “You feel like you didn’t do something you should have. We had never heard of the word until they told us the diagnosis.
“I really felt like … when you lose your husband, who had been my friend, before he was my sweetheart – we’d known each other since we were 12. I felt if there was some way I could reach out to someone else it would help me as much as maybe I could help them. I felt there was that need in my heart, to find out as much as I could about the disease,” Cheryl says. “It was wonderful to know that people were surviving. But it makes me angry that Virgil didn’t have a chance.”
She had a chance to meet her “rock,” Sue Vento, at that first conference as well. Since that time, Cheryl has attended the Symposium for three years in a row, where she is active, joining others in visiting Capitol Hill to ask Congress to ban asbestos, and to fund mesothelioma research. She is also active in her community, talking to people about the dangers of asbestos exposure and about mesothelioma. She takes brochures about mesothelioma to doctors’ offices, hoping to increase knowledge among the medical community, hoping that someone else may be diagnosed early enough for treatment.
“Now I have contact with more people who are battling mesothelioma, and I learn that most people also have never heard of it. At the time, you just have to hang in there, and you can fall apart later. So I try to connect and just try to help someone, to let them know that someone is there who understands what they are going through. And it helps me too,” she says.
“I share my story every chance I get. I wear an awareness pin. People need to know asbestos is out there and it’s killing people.”
Outreach is hard. Every time she shares Virgil’s story, the pain is fresh again. But Cheryl is determined, and she’s willing.
“Mesothelioma patients and their families are victims,” Cheryl says. “They are victims of asbestos. And all of this COULD and SHOULD have been avoided!”