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Faced With Mesothelioma Right After Retirement


At his pre-retirement company physical in late July, the attending physician told John Haley, "If I sold life insurance, I'd want to sell you a policy." Two months later, on October 1, John Haley was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma.

Doctors had x-rayed John's chest as a routine part of his physical in late July. At that point, John was feeling the healthiest he had ever felt, having shed 25 pounds off his frame to a weight of 225 pounds. He was still playing softball in the Golden Age League, playing golf with his wife and fishing on Potholes Reservoir near his home in East Wenatchee, Washington. John worked as a laborer, welder and pot repairman at the ALCOA aluminum Plant in Wenatchee, Washington from 1963 to 2001.

His chest films came back, and at his doctors' request, John consented to more films over Labor Day weekend. Results from the follow up films showed abnormalities that were "consistent" with a possible "neoplasm" or cancer. John's doctor ordered pulmonary function tests to determine the extent to which, if any, the mass pushing against his lung was restricting his lung function. Those results confirmed the presence of a worrisome defect. His doctor scheduled John for a CT scan. The scan showed what his doctor suspected: there was no clearance between John's right lung and his rib cage.

On October 1, Dr. Stephen Knox of the Wenatchee Valley Clinic performed a biopsy, and the pathological report returned positive for malignant pleural mesothelioma.

John was immediately referred to Dr. Eric Vallieres of the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. A member of the Science Advisory Board of the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation (MARF), a 501(c)(3) non-profit charity whose mission is to eradicate mesothelioma as a life-ending disease, Dr. Vallieres is one of the foremost treaters of mesothelioma in the nation.

Dr. Vallieres met with John on October 17. John underwent a PET scan, which showed that the tumor had spread to John's lymph nodes. Although this finding put John into a advanced stage of tumor progression, Dr. Vallieres concluded that in view of his overall health John was a candidate for the rigorous multi-modality therapy that he offered at the University of Washington. Dr. Vallieres' protocol consists of pre-surgical induction chemotherapy, and, if the tumor shows response to chemotherapy as evidenced by CT scan, extra-pleural pneumonectomy, follwed by radiation.

An extra-pleural pneumonectomy is considered to be a radical surgery with a significant patient mortality, depending on where the patient undergoes the procedure. It is controversial, as certain doctors would instead recommend a pleurectomy / decortication, which calls for sparing the lung and removing the visible tumor only. See Klaus Brauch. When performing the EPP, Dr. Vallieres removes the patient's affected lung and the pericardial sac (along with the diaphragm) and replaces the same with a new lining made of Kevlar®. Several weeks after surgery, after the patient has partially healed, radiation therapy is applied to the affected area in an effort to eliminate all traces of the tumor. Eligibility for surgery, however, relies entirely on the patient's response to chemotherapy. If, after two rounds of chemotherapy, the tumor has not shrunk, the patient may not continue with the treatment protocol and surgery.

For his two rounds of chemotherapy, Dr. Vallieres referred John to Dr. Kyran Bulger, also of the Wenatchee Valley Clinic. John began his chemotherapy on October 29 with a twenty-four hour stay for a blast of Cisplatin that knocked him over. Each of his next three treatments to complete his first round of chemotherapy were with a less powerful drug in accordance with the prescribed regimen. Today, he began his second round of treatment, again with Cisplatin, but this time he will remain in the hospital for 48 hours, to allow his body more time to adjust and recuperate.

John's entire family has rallied around him at this time. At the time of his initial diagnosis, his wife, Nikki, was devastated. Over the next several weeks, Niki did her best to channel all of her stress and anxiety into making her husband comfortable, strong and hopeful. John's youngest daughter, Jessica Nicole, and his son, Newton Baxter, have also tried their best to render aid and comfort, and his eldest daughter, Melody, visits every night, sometimes bringing over her two sons to see their grandfather.

John is facing a big adjustment. He formally retired from ALCOA on November 1, after 38 ½ years of service first as a laborer, and after 1978, as a welder and pot repairman. As a welder and repairman, he was responsible for maintaining the pots, the enormous asbestos refractory-lined furnaces in which aluminum oxide undergoes smelting through electrolytic reduction to become aluminum. The work was difficult, dirty and tough. He was looking forward after years of work near the smelting pots and other high temperature equipment to a long and enjoyable retirement.

Now, instead of cruising along in his retirement years at his own pace, it seems that everyone is taking care of John -- which he appreciates, but this wasn't the picture he envisioned all those years while on the job. He wanted self-reliance. He wanted to be the one helping others.

The chemotherapy has been rough. He has had nausea which lowers his appetite. John will be undergoing a second round of chemotherapy after which he will have another PET scan and biopsy to determine if he is eligible for the EPP and a chance at living longer. The reality of his predicament has set in -- he's a cancer patient, and no amount of wishful thinking or even anger will retard the steady march of the tumor inside him. John knows that it's unfair, but knowledge like this is of little immediate help. Yes, he wants to go bass and perch fishing (he's been saving up all these years to spend a good deal amount of his retirement at a special little spot the whereabouts even now he cannot divulge). Yes, he wants to spend his afternoons on the golf course playing the game he loves with the wife he loves. Yes, he'd like to get back out on the softball fields, under the lights, anticipating his next at bat where he can hit that homer in the bottom of the ninth he's always dreamed about.

But for now, these dreams are on hold. A new year is just around the corner, and John and Nikki hope that it ushers in some good news, and his share of good luck.

*** POSTED DECEMBER 5, 2001 ***

Mr. Haley passed away on April 16, 2002