John Sword is one such individual—a dockyard worker for decades who retired from his job as a lagger at the Davenport dockyard in the UK in 1991 after 20 years of service. A year later, he was diagnosed with asbestos-related pleural plaque in his lungs.
The more serious diagnosis of asbestos cancer took another 19 years. He got the news that he has asbestos mesothelioma last year, which is akin to a death sentence: according to The Plymouth Herald (7/4/12), asbestos-related mesothelioma is usually fatal within 18 months to two years following diagnosis. There is no cure.
So John is talking about the disease, in an attempt to educate others similarly exposed. Of what may come, and that decades of good health can mean nothing. Mesothelioma can take several years to incubate in the body until it suddenly appears, presumably out of nowhere.
But it does come from somewhere, from exposure—however slight—to asbestos fibers. Sword tells The Herald about times where he and his fellow dock workers would kick wads of asbestos around like footballs.
They appeared to know, at some point during the time he worked at the Davenport docks from 1972 through 1991, that asbestos was a risk. They were issued protective clothing to ward against exposure to asbestos mesothelioma, although John told The Herald that clothing was often inadequate. Paper masks—a far cry from the 'hazmat' suits used today—would often slip when squeezing into tight spaces.
"Everybody took precautions but one bit of dust is all it takes," he said.
"I've been to my friends' funerals, seen their obituaries in the paper," John continues.
"There's [sic] a lot of poor old boys who died and didn't even know what they had. I know what's going to come but I don't want it to come just yet. You've got to make the most of things.
"We've got a new grandchild to look forward to. I just want to get through and live a bit longer." Sword and his wife of 46 years, Barbara, are hoping chemotherapy will help slow the cancer down. But John knows it's just a matter of time.
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The Herald reported that 373 men died from asbestos injury in Plymouth from 1981 to 2005, while the number of mesothelioma deaths nationally in the UK increased from 153 in 1968 to 2,321 in 2009.
Those mesothelioma numbers are about to get even bigger, and peak between the years 2015 and 2020.
Sword is using his last months to raise a clarion call about the scourge that is asbestos mesothelioma, and the numbers of otherwise healthy men the disease is claiming.
"Sometimes it feels like there's not many of us left," he said. "It's a generation affected, and more."