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Steve McQueen: The ‘King of Cool’s’ deadly mesothelioma – critical warning signs

Bullitt: Steve McQueen stars in 1968 trailer

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The actor, who was nicknamed the “King of Cool” shot to fame initially in the late 1950s which he maintained until the 1970s. In 1974 he became the highest-paid movie star in the world making him sought after by numerous Hollywood directors and producers. His road to get to his level of fame was hard and McQueen dealt with an alcoholic mother, abusive step-fathers and even a 41-day imprisonment by the US military after he went absent without leave (AWOL) for two weeks shortly after joining the Marines. The highs and lows of both his career and upbringing culminated when he was diagnosed with asbestos cancer, known professionally as pleural mesothelioma which is associated with asbestos exposure.

What started as a persistent cough when The Great Escape actor was 48 years old soon took a serious turn. But adamant that he was going to beat the cancerous condition, McQueen tried everything to try and rid himself of cancer, including giving up smoking.

It is thought that the actor was first exposed to asbestos when serving in the same army that would imprison him, feeding him only bread and water to survive on. He served in the US Marine Corps from 1947 to 1950 where he spent time working on board naval ships and in shipyards.

It is likely that when aboard military ships soldiers were exposed to the deadly mineral. In addition, living and working in tight quarters with poor ventilation meant any disturbed asbestos fibres would become more concentrated in the air.

The microscopic fibres can easily be inhaled or ingested and eventually lodge themselves in the lining of organs. Over time, these asbestos fibres can create scarring and inflammation leading to the development of mesothelioma tumours and other types of cancer.

In addition to his military service, McQueen himself was reported to have believed that asbestos used in insulation on movie sound stages and in race drivers’ protective suits and helmets could have been part of what led to his cancer diagnosis.

Due to McQueen’s late onset of symptoms – approximately 30 years after he had left military service – doctors struggled to diagnose him, meaning that the actor’s condition was not caught until it had already advanced into a later stage.

Still, with the hope to cure himself of the condition, McQueen was given a course of antibiotics, but his shortness of breath grew more and more pronounced and by February 1980 there was evidence that cancer had spread throughout his body.

Revealing publicly that he had been diagnosed with “terminal cancer” by March 1980, McQueen continued to take drastic measures to try and prolong his life, even travelling back and forth to Mexico to try unconventional treatments.

One of the individuals he went to was orthodontist William Donald Kelley, who claimed he had developed an alternative cancer treatment. Kelley was promoting a variety of therapies that used coffee enemas as well as massages, shampoos and daily injections of fluid containing live cells from cattle and sheep.

He also used an anti-cancer drug that has since been known to be both toxic and ineffective. Unaware of this at the time, it is thought that in his desperation McQueen paid for his treatments in cash, handing over $40,000 per month, which today is worth around $124,000 (£103,000).

Boasting that the three-month long treatment would cure him of the cancer, McQueen returned to the US to find that the exact opposite had occurred and he had developed huge tumours in his abdomen. Kelley’s only medical licence, which was for orthodontics, was later revoked in 1976.

Once again ignoring doctor’s advice, McQueen returned to Mexico once more to have a five pound tumour removed as well as others from his neck. Yet devastatingly, as doctors warned the actor’s heart was not strong enough to withstand the surgery, he died from a cardiac arrest the day after.

Mesothelioma remains a relatively rare condition, but as symptoms take anywhere between 15 to 45 years to develop it is hugely important that individuals are aware of the first signs to receive treatment.

The charity Mesothelioma UK explains that the main symptoms of pleural mesothelioma (which targets the lining of the lungs) include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Cough
  • Sweating
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Clubbed or swollen finger tips
  • Fatigue and lethargy.

Differing slightly, symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the tummy instead of the lungs includes:

  • Tummy pain or swelling
  • Feeling or being sick
  • Loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss
  • Diarrhoea or constipation.

The condition is most common in men over 75 years old, but this does not mean that younger individuals and those who identify as women are not at risk. In fact, there is approximately one case of peritoneal mesothelioma to every 12 cases of pleural mesothelioma, with nine out of 10 of these cases caused by asbestos exposure.

In comparison as to when McQueen was diagnosed, there has been extensive research and developments in how to treat mesothelioma. However, the best treatment often depends on several factors, including how far the cancer has spread and the general health of the individual.

If the cancer is at an advanced stage when diagnosed, treatment aims to control symptoms and prolong life for as long as possible, this is known as palliative care.

Most common treatments offered by the NHS include:

  • Chemotherapy – this is the main treatment for mesothelioma and involves using medicine to help shrink the cancer
  • Radiotherapy – this involves using high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells; it may be used to slow the cancer down and keep it under control
  • Surgery – an operation to remove the cancerous area can be done if mesothelioma is detected at a very early stage, although it’s not clear whether surgery is helpful.

However, even with the development of cancer treatments, the outlook for mesothelioma remains poor, with around 50 percent of individuals diagnosed with the condition living for only a year after their diagnosis. There are currently around 2,500 deaths from mesothelioma each year in the UK.

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