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Contractor Chooses Surgery

After undergoing a series of tests on fluid and tissue removed from his chest last year, 65 year-old Benny Sims was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. The retired electrician and contractor recalls that over a period of months several physicians told him that he had an incurable cancer, and each had his own way of breaking the news: "One told me, 'Just go home and get your stuff together.' You know, he didn't tell me I was going to die, he just said, 'Go home and get your stuff together.'"

Benny Sims is not the type to "go home and wait to die." He has chosen to fight back - with a loving wife, a skilled surgeon and a strong dose of good old fashioned grit.


His troubles began in the summer of 2002. Enthusiasts for any outdoor activity imaginable -- water skiing, jet skiing, fishing, camping, taking long hikes and bicycling -- Benny and his wife Pam had recently purchased a motor home with grand hopes of spending their retirement years traveling the U.S. and Canada. In early June, Benny was jogging and accidentally tripped, taking a right-sided shoulder roll as he went down. He got up and brushed himself off.

About a week after, on June 10, Benny began having a sharp pain that went from the right lower rib cage back to the kidney area. He had experienced back pain in the past, and assumed the source of his pain was a pinched nerve. He had a doctor's appointment scheduled for June 21, so he decided to endure the pain until then.

On June 21, Benny's doctor examined him and advised that his pain was not related to the fall, but rather could be related to his gall bladder. The pain became so severe that Benny had to be admitted to the hospital. Several tests were taken, including an abdominal ultrasound. The ultrasound revealed a right pleural effusion. Chest films and a CT scan followed, and confirmed the presence of fluid in the chest cavity, as well as a partial collapse of the right lung. The CT scan also showed bilateral pleural plaques, an indicator of prior, heavy asbestos exposure. A thoracentesis performed the same day drained fluid from the right thoracic cavity. Tests performed on the fluid in the pathology laboratory were suspicious for malignant mesothelioma.

The fluid was then sent to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. After several tests, pathologists at Stanford reported a working diagnosis of mesothelioma. To be absolutely sure, they recommended that Benny undergo a tissue biopsy. The Simses were quickly referred to Dr. Robert Cameron of the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, California. Dr. Cameron is one of the foremost surgeons in the world treating mesothelioma and helped found the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation ( MARF).

On July 22, Benny consulted with Dr. Cameron, who after reviewing the medical records also recommended a pleural biopsy. On July 30, Benny underwent a right and left pleural biopsy at the UCLA Medical Center. Specimens removed from his right chest cavity and tested by pathologists at UCLA confirmed the diagnosis of mesothelioma.


On August 16, Dr. Cameron informed Benny that the tumor appeared to be in the early stages and localized to one area, and that he would be a suitable candidate for pleurectomy with decortication. Benny wanted a chance at prolonging his life, and decided to go forward with the surgery.

Eighteen days later, on September 3, Cameron performed a five-and-one-half hour surgery, which included the surgical removal of a rib and the lining of the left lung, and scraping the interior chest wall of all visible tumor. Benny remained hospitalized for the next nine days. After his discharge, he continued to experience excruciating "recovery" pain, but his incisions were healing well.

In October, Benny began a five-week radiation treatment cycle, with treatments five days a week. One side effect of the radiation therapy was radiation burns, which Benny likened to "big ol' volcanoes." He also suffered loss of appetite and maddening skin itch.

Recently, Benny has developed debilitating shortness of breath. According to Pam, he can only get five words out, five steps forward, and then he's out of breath. The Simses are currently trying to get Benny treatment with Interferon, but are having difficulty getting approval through Medicaid. He is under the care of a pain management specialist and takes Oxycontin. To help with the depression common to patients with incurable cancer, Benny takes Zoloft.

Benny now hopes his body will let him have just a sampling of what could have been. He wants to keep fighting, but mesothelioma has shattered his and Pam's lifelong dreams. "Here I worked all my life to get up to where I could retire. Get a motor home, go on vacation. I got the motor home, I went on vacation, and mesothelioma just jumped up and bit me."

We will keep you posted on the progress of this couple determined to enjoy the retirement they worked so hard for.

*** POSTED APRIL 21, 2003 ***

Mr. Sims passed away on April 19, 2003.