Jim Foster decided to look further than the standard wisdom on treating-or
not treating-mesothelioma. Today, three years after diagnosis, he and
his wife Shannon are in the fifth month of an extended sailboat cruise
down the western coasts of Europe and across the Atlantic to the Caribbean.
Jim, a corporate pilot and former U.S.M.C. fighter pilot, was 56-years-old
when he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Doctors delivered to Jim the
dictum that many still consider the appropriate response when faced with
mesothelioma's historically abysmal reputation: that any attempt to
treat this disease was worse than the disease itself, that no one at the
diagnosing hospital would treat Jim, and to go home, get his affairs in
order and get ready to die. Jim decided to look further than the standard
wisdom on treating-or not treating-mesothelioma. Three years later (after
undergoing surgery, chemotherapy and a phase I clinical study of a new
generation cancer drug so experimental it does not even have a name),
Jim and his wife Shannon are currently in the fifth month of an extended
sailboat cruise down the western coasts of Europe and across the Atlantic
to the Caribbean.
Jim's symptoms began while he and Shannon were on vacation in Lake
Tahoe in the spring of 1999. Jim experienced difficulty breathing at the
high altitude and also suffered severe soreness in the lower right rib
area. On his return to Texas, he underwent a thoracentesis and four quarts
of fluid were removed. Three weeks later, an additional five quarts were removed.
Jim was diagnosed with mesothelioma at Methodist Hospital, Houston, on
July 22, 1999. An oncologist at Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Clinic
told him that treatment was futile. Originally from Minnesota, Jim and
Shannon knew of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where family
and friends went for expert medical advice and treatment. They visited
Mayo in early August for a consultation. The physicians there considered
Jim an excellent candidate for an E.P.P. (extrapleural pneumonectomy)
because he was young (56), was in otherwise excellent health, was a non-smoker,
and was only in stage 1 of the disease. Dr. Daniel Miller, a member of
the Science Advisory Board of the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation (
MARF), performed the surgery on August 25.
The surgery lasted nine hours and included scraping the chest wall and
resecting the diaphragm. Because the pleura had previously been "talc"ed,
the lung was a solid mass, making the surgery more difficult. Nonetheless,
Dr. Miller was able to remove much of the disease and felt positive about
the outcome of the surgery.
After six weeks of recuperation at their home in the golfing community
of The Woodlands, Texas, the Fosters returned to Mayo for approval to
continue treatment with chemotherapy. They were given the "recipe"
or protocol for chemotherapy (Gemcitabine/Cisplatin) to prevent progression
of the disease and returned to The Woodlands for treatment.
Jim was very sick the entire four months of treatment. His 205 pound, 6-foot
frame dwindled to 150 pounds. His blood counts fluctuated and he developed
neuropathy (numbness) in his legs, feet, toes and hands, but he never
missed a session. Jim would drive himself to the clinic no matter how
weak he was. Late on Christmas Eve, 1999, the Fosters sat in a hospital
waiting for a blood transfusion because of low blood counts. Jim looked
at Shannon and said, "Well, I guess I know what I'm getting for
Shannon Foster pinning Jim with
the "Wings Of Gold"
Jim and Shannon have been married 37 years. They met at a small Lutheran
college in St. Peter, Minnesota. After graduating in 1964, Jim joined
the Unites States Marine Corps and entered the training command to learn
to fly at Quantico, Virgina. He was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant at Pensacola
Naval Base, Florida, where Shannon pinned on his "Wings of Gold."
In preparation for a 13-month tour in Viet Nam, Jim spent time in Meridian,
Mississippi, and Beeville, Texas, training in the A-4 Skyhawk.
The Fosters enjoyed a life of traveling and dreamed of owning their own
sailboat to cruise the world together upon retirement. But, plans to realize
those dreams came to a halt with Jim's diagnosis. Their daughter Leesa,
who lives in Seattle, Washington has worked as an environmental consultant
for 5 years, and often supervised the removal and disposal of asbestos.
The use of protective suits and chemical showers to shield workers from
deadly asbestos fibers was all too familiar to her. She was obviously
reluctant to share with her parents what she knew of the grim details
and discouraging outcomes of a mesothelioma diagnosis.
During the next 30 months, Jim regained most of the weight and strength
he had lost prior to diagnosis and the initial chemotherapy regimen. Jim
and Shannon started to play golf again and Jim returned to a full work
schedule. He was able to stay with the same company as aviation manager
but knew he would never fly again due to the numerous pain medicines he
required daily. A new team of experienced doctors and researchers that
specialize in the treatment of mesothelioma had been hired at the MDA
Cancer Clinic since the Fosters' first visit. Jim returned to MDA
For two years CT scans remained clear of any signs of the disease. Jim
and Shannon researched treatments by monitoring mesothelioma websites.
Pet scans were often mentioned as a new tool to detect mesothelioma. In
February 2002, MARF Science Advisory Board member Dr. Roy Smythe of MDA
ordered a PET scan for Jim. The Fosters waited days to hear those welcomed
words: "good news." Instead, they were told that the mesothelioma
had returned in the form of many tumors scattered throughout the diseased
lung cavity. The left lung remained cancer-free. A thoracic surgeon, a
radiologist and an oncologist at MDA evaluated the tumors and agreed that
nothing more could be done. Jim's body could not tolerate additional
conventional chemotherapy. The tumors were too widespread; surgery and
radiation were out of the question.
Then oncologist Dr. Roy Herbst offered Jim the opportunity to participate
in a phase I clinical study that was just starting at MDA. Jim fit the
study's patient profile and became the new cancer drug's first
recipient. The experimental drug, referred to only by its function and
a number - tyrosine kinase inhibitor VEGFR-2 #013736 - and made by Agouron
Pharmaceutical, is administered in tablet form. Trial physicians addressed
the drug's side affects: high blood pressure, achy joints and acid
reflux. After eight weeks, scans and blood samples were taken. The scans
indicated that the tumors were not only arrested, but they had shrunk!
The doctors and nurses were ecstatic. The Fosters hoped for continued
success after 24 weeks and began to get ready to fulfil their dream of
taking an extended sailboat cruise together.
Jim and Shannon aboard the "Gustie"
Jim retired, the Fosters sold their Texas home and they found the sailboat
of their dreams in Turku, Finland. They christened the 42-foot Nauticat
"Gustie" because they had attended Gustavus Adolphus College
whose students and alumni were known as the "Gusties." The Fosters
set out from Finland and sailed down the Swedish coast, through Denmark
to Kiel, Germany. Their journey would take them through the Kiel Canal,
into the North Sea, and on to England. From there, they cruised the coasts
of France, Portugal, and Spain, and down to the Canary Islands. They have
joined the ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) and plan to cross the Atlantic
Ocean to spend the winter of 2002-3 in the Caribbean.
Every 4 weeks Jim flies back to Houston for physician visits, medical exams
and scans. During his visit in September, the Fosters received both good
and bad news. The tumor had shrunk again, this time by a total of 40%.
However, Agouron Pharmaceutical was shutting down the clinical trial,
as two of the four patients enrolled at MD Anderson had recently died.
The Fosters never knew whether this was due to the drug or not. They also
did not know if and when the drug company would allow Jim to return to the drug.
Undaunted, Jim and Shannon sailed on, slicing through the Bay of Biscay
at 8.5 knots, or as Shannon put it, "Like a hot knife through butter."
Even the Costa de Muerte (Coast of Death) could not deter them, though
Gustie rolled rail to rail and pitched in enormous swells crashing on
her foredeck. Sleeping was out of the question as they watched every unsecured
item in the cabin fly from side to side, and trusted their lives to the
skill of Gustie's master boatbuilder, Kai. Finally, Jim and Shannon
put in to the harbor of La Coruna, Spain, and celebrated Shannon's
October birthday. Jim has to monitor his high blood pressure three to
four times a day, but other than that, the Fosters are warm, dry and cozy
in their cabin, and looking forward to the authentic paella they will
find in Bayona, Spain. They also continue to look forward, as Shannon
puts it, to "seeing the world while we're still on it."
As of this writing, Jim has received word that the clinical trial at MD
Anderson is again underway, allowing him to get back on course with his
treatment as well
*** POSTED DECEMBER 23, 2002 ***
An Update -- 7/9/03
Jim and Shannon crossed the Atlantic Ocean with the A.R.C. (Atlantic Rally
for Cruisers). 225 boats with multicolored sails departed Las Palmas,
Canary Islands on November 24, 2002. Jim relayed that sailing Gustie on
the Atlantic was like surfing a 15 ton surfboard, up one crest and down
the next. Their emotions varied from exhilaration to boredom, fear to
pride, contentment to confusion and amazement to joy, sometimes all in
the same hour. After 18 days and 2700 nautical miles, their crossing ended
in St. Lucia. Leesa, their daughter, greeted Jim and Shannon joyously,
and they celebrated The Holidays together aboard Gustie.
Leaving winter behind, relatives and friends began to arrive in The Caribbean.
They also wanted to experience life on Gustie and swim in the crystal
clear waters. After almost a year aboard Gustie, Jim and Shannon left
Gustie in Trinidad and returned to their home in Minnesota for the summer.
Throughout this journey, Jim has returned monthly to Houston and MDAnderson
for blood tests and scans to monitor his mesothelioma. He's still
participating in a phase 1 clinical trial with Dr. Herbst at MDAnderson.
The progression of the cancerous tumors has remained static, after the
initial tumor reduction no new growth is still noteworthy.
Jim believes that with the new generation of cancer fighting drugs it will
be possible to continue to live rewarding lives with so far, incurable cancers.
Jim and Shannon are charting the next leg of their sailing journey. In
the fall of 2003, they plan to return to Trinidad and Gustie, sail the
northern coast of South America through the Panama Canal and on to the
Sea of Cortez.
An Update -- 6/16/04
We left Gustie in Puerto Rico at the end of January. Jim was not feeling
well enough to continue our journey to Florida. A tumor was pushing on
the SVC (superior vena cava) and a stint was inserted. Jim found immediate relief.
Rick Olson, my brother-in-law, a hired captain and I sailed Gustie to Charleston,
SC. Jim (feeling better) joined me to sail the ICW (intercostal waterway)
to Rock Hall, MD, (Chesapeake Bay). After much deliberation and consternation
our thought is to sell our lovely floating winter home. The boat is equipped
with all the bells and whistles to ease the sail of her, but we both think
it has gotten to be too much for Jim.
In early Feb. Alimta, a new and approved drug became available. Jim has
just finished the 6th round of treatments (every 3 weeks) along with radiation.
Yesterday we met with doctors, viewed and received ct scan results. AND……the
new drug is working. The tumors as are reducing in size and the cancer
markers have halved. So, who knows? We may end up living aboard Gustie
next fall anyway, if the tumors continue to go away AND the boat hasn't.
Jim was diagnosed 5 years ago in July with mesothelioma and given 6 -"
12 months to live. In celebration of our 39 anniversary and another July
together we are taking a Hawaiian Island cruise.
Because of all your good thoughts, wishes and prayers (and don't quit now)
THE JOURNEY CONTINUES.
Jim Foster, 62 of White Bear Lake, died after fighting mesothelioma courageously
for six years, an insidious disease caused by asbestos exposure.
Preceded in death by his father, Elmer and father and mother in-law Dean
and Agnes Shawbold.
Jim is survived by his best friend and wife of 40 years Shannon (Shawbold);
daughter and husband Leesa and John Koch, Seattle, Washington, mother
Jeanette Foster, New Hope, sister and brother-in-law Mary and Rick Olson
of Annandale, MN, brother and sister-in-law Dean and Mary Shawbold, White
Bear Lake, MN.
Jim, an Eagle Scout, graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College and the University
of Minnesota was a Marine Corps Pilot, Vietnam Veteran and Corporate Pilot.
Upon retirement Jim and Shannon turned their dream into reality with the
purchase of Gustie, a 42 foot sailboat.Theysailed from Turku, Finland
to St. Lucia Island, in the Caribbean.
A celebration of Jim's life for family and friends is scheduled for
4:00 PM, Sunday, August 14 at Jim and Shannon's residence.
Memorials are preferred to
MARF Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, 1123 Chapala Street, Suite 200,
P.O. Box 91840, Santa Barbara, California 93190-1840.
Shannon, Leesa and John