The son of a former shipyard worker who died from asbestos cancer has welcomed new research into the disease.
The “long and painful” legacy of asbestos in Scotland is to be tackled with a £2.1m Cancer Research UK grant aimed at solving why it can take decades for exposure to the fibrous mineral to develop into mesothelioma, a type of cancer that commonly develops in the thin tissue lining the lungs or abdomen.
There was widespread industrial use of asbestos between 1950 and 1980, particularly in Glasgow and the surrounding area, as the material was manufactured in towns such as Clydebank and used in much heavy industry like ship building, for which the River Clyde was famed.
While the material is now outlawed, mesothelioma cases have increased since the early 1990s.
Only around four in ten (44.3%) people diagnosed with mesothelioma in Scotland survive their disease for one year or more.
‘An active man all his life’
Patrick Hynes, from Clydebank, died from mesothelioma aged 91 in 2020.
The grandad, who had spent three or four years in the late 1950s and 1960s working in the shipyards, had been struggling to breathe in the months leading up to his diagnosis in 2018.
His son Noel described him as “strong and active” and said he “hardly missed work a day in his life”.
He said: “He was working with concrete at the docks and other workers were breaking up sheets of asbestos next to him which caused a white dust.
“They were all breathing it in with no masks or protection back then – in those days they just got on with it.”
After leaving the shipyard Patrick continued to work with concrete, later working as a lorry driver and latterly helping at his son’s bus company, but never worked with asbestos again.
Noel said: “He was an active man all his life, never had a lie-in and even after retirement would work in my brother’s garage five or six days a week just helping out.”
Patrick started to feel breathless in 2017 and it became progressively worse until he was diagnosed with mesothelioma in October 2018 and he died, aged 91, in May 2020.
Noel said: “It was difficult to see someone so strong and active struggling to breathe.”
The father of seven, grandfather and great grandfather had been offered tests via a biopsy with potential further treatment, but felt the long-term benefits of tests and treatment at his age would outweigh the short-term risks.
Noel added: “The treatment wouldn’t have cured him, and dad felt it would have reduced his quality of life too much.”
Noel, who now volunteers with the Clydebank Asbestos Group – offering help, support and advice to others, and their families, who have been diagnosed with asbestos-related illness – said: “It’s terrible to see what asbestos does.
“To see my dad, who hardly missed a day of work in his life and never complained, suffering with pain was just heartbreaking for the family to watch. He was such a strong, brave man.”
Low survival rate
Mesothelioma, which currently has a very poor survival rate, most commonly starts in layers of tissue covering the lungs, usually following the inhalation of asbestos fibres, and can take more than 40 years to develop.
Early symptoms such as chest pain, fatigue and constant coughing can be overlooked because they are similar to other illnesses.
According to Cancer Research UK, the UK currently endures the highest incidence of mesothelioma worldwide, with the disease more prevalent in men due to occupation-related exposure.
Rates are significantly higher in the west coast of Scotland than the Scotland average with around 100 of the 200 new cases in Scotland each year in the region.
Now Cancer Research UK has awarded £2.1m to a team of researchers in Glasgow and Cambridge to help unlock answers to the questions of what happens in the decades between initial exposure to asbestos and diagnosis.
Led by Professor Daniel Murphy at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow and the University of Glasgow, and Professor Marion MacFarlane of the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, they hope to find new molecular features that could make it easier to diagnose and treat mesothelioma earlier, before symptoms appear.
‘Dark shadow over Scotland’s west coast’
Professor Murphy said: “Asbestos exposure has cast a dark shadow over Glasgow and the west coast of Scotland with incidence rates of mesothelioma significantly higher here than the Scottish average.
“Mesothelioma is difficult to treat, and outcomes are usually poor for those diagnosed.
“In order to develop new strategies for the prevention and treatment of mesothelioma, we need a much deeper understanding of the basic biology behind how it progresses.
“This new programme, REMIT, will build on substantial previous funding from Cancer Research UK for the world-leading Glasgow-led projects PREDICT-Meso & IAMMED-Meso, which seek to define the high-risk indicators for patients with pre-cancerous lung abnormalities potentially developing cancer.
“Together, REMIT, IAMMED-Meso and PREDICT-Meso will now form a comprehensive strategy for early detection, risk stratification and more effective treatments for mesothelioma patients.”
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