#321-The WHY behind my cancer . . .

(Note: The next post will be on Sunday, January 30. i had surgery on my veins in one leg on Wednesday. Since then, all I want to do is sleep!)

Seven years ago, I was diagnosed with late-stage lymphoma in late September. And the sentence that stuck with me in the lymphoma info given to me was this: “Patients with this diagnosis can count their lifespan in months—not years!” That got my attention! I wanted to start treatment the next day.

Before treatment could begin, I met with an oncologist and had numerous tests to determine type of lymphoma and extent of spread. Then the exact protocol of treatment could be planned. So, it was the third week in October when I began treatment, which lasted for five months. It was heavy duty, but I survived it. I chronicled the whole experience each week in my blog posts. The whole five months worth of posts, plus a few chapters, became my latest book, The Cancer Blog. I put it together in 2021.

While I was reliving every week of my treatment this past year, I began to wonder why I got such a serious, life-threatening cancer. Most cancer can be attributed to hereditary or environmental causes. Cancer does not run in my family on either side. And all my aunts and uncles on both sides lived into their 90s and my mother to 105. So, I’ll rule out hereditary.

As to environmental, that’s a different story. I can’t prove it, but here’s my theory. I taught school in the Los Gatos School District in California for 22 years all at Blossom Hill School between 1963 and 1985. And for all but my first year, I was in the old wing of the school. Three other teachers who taught for decades in the same school, also in the old wing, became very ill and all three have passed away due to their illnesses. We were all hired the same year—1963—when the new wing was built.

There were four of us who spent decades teaching in the old wing. There were teachers that spent decades at Blossom Hill who taught in the new wing. To my knowledge, none of them experienced the same type of health problems as those of us in the old wing did.

My first class at Blossom Hill School, 1963-64. In the background is the old wing

Anne spent her whole career there from 1963 until somewhere around 2004 to 2006 when at the age of 63-65, she was asked to retire a couple months early because she was exhibiting symptoms of short-term memory loss that affected her teaching. She had been there, in the old wing, for 40+ years.

Then there was Madeline, who taught in the old wing for a few years, went to Spain and taught a few years, and came back to Blossom Hill in the old wing and taught there for many more years. Her total time there was about 25 years.

Lastly, was Jean who taught in the old wing for about 40 years. She was hired in 1963 and retired when she was about 65. That was around 2003 to 2004.

This is staff of Blossom Hill School in 1985, my last year. Jean is in back row on left end and Anne is next to her. Madeline is on left end of middle row and I am two places over–right in front of Anne.

I saw Anne the summer after she retired. She would seem like her old self and ask me how I was doing and what I was up to, and within 10 minutes, was asking me the same questions all over again and 10 minutes later and . . . Her husband could not leave her alone, even for a minute. She was diagnosed with a fast-moving dementia and within a year and a half of my visit, she passed away. She was in her mid-60s.

While Madeline was still teaching at Blossom Hill––she contracted lymphoma and died while undergoing treatment. She was in her 50s.  

After Jean retired she had lymphoma four times and survived treatment each time. Each of those cancers exhibited as a lump in her neck. This location, makes it easy to spot. The fifth time, she was diagnosed with lymphoma, it was in her abdomen, like mine. That is much more difficult to detect. This time, it was late-stage, and she did not survive. But she did live into her late 70s.

During my last week in June 1985, the whole school held a special going away assembly for me. My first graders are seated behind me. I am facing almost 200 4th-6th graders and about half were my students. This is the old wing in background.

I taught for 22 years and was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2014. It has been seven years, and now I am 80. I realize that this particular form of cancer may return. So, I am on the watch for it.

My theory is that the four of us were affected by asbestos in the old wing. I know the floor tiles were asbestos. They were fully exposed to us for several years, and then as the dangers from asbestos were being made public in the ‘70s, the tiles were covered with thin carpeting with no padding.

We also had heavy, green drapes that we pulled when we showed films during some of the science units that we taught. They were there the entire 22 years I was there. And all of us pulled the drapes whenever we had earthquake drills. I think those drapes were made of fabric including asbestos. One of the custodians complained about the “asbestos” drapes in the old wing more than once.

This is the architect’s rendition of how Blossom Hill will look after the remodel work done in 2007. In the background is the two-story classroom building to the left that replaced the old wing and a multi-purpose building to the right in the background.

I can’t prove any of this. The old wing of the school is no longer there because Blossom Hill School underwent extensive remodeling several years ago. And I am the only one left alive of the four of us who each taught for decades in the old wing. Like I said before, those who taught for decades in the new wing, built in 1962-63, did not have the same types of life-threatening health problems.

Because four of us had such life-threatening diseases and we all worked for decades in the old wing of the school that had asbestos in the building materials, I strongly feel that contributed to our serious health problems.

Anyway, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.Read on; I’ve included some info to back me up.



Medical––Info from 2016 from Archivos de Bronconeumologia, 2016 

Various elements suggest a relationship between asbestos and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Firstly, the relatively high prevalence of the association between mesothelioma and lymphoma (both rare in the general population) is difficult to attribute to chance. Secondly, extranodal lymphoma (a variety particularly observed among immunocompromised individuals) has repeatedly been reported.1 Thirdly, the recognized effects of asbestos on immune mechanisms5 confers biological plausibility to the notion of a relationship between asbestos and lymphoma.

–Archivos de Bronconeumologia is a scientific journal that preferentially publishes prospective original research articles whose content is based upon results dealing with several aspects of respiratory diseases such as epidemiology, pathophysiology, clinics, surgery, and basic investigation.

Asbestos. com—Info from “Asbestos in Schools: A Guide for Parents & Administrators,” 2021

Understanding the Risks of Asbestos Exposure in Schools––The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are asbestos-containing materials in most of the nation’s primary, secondary and charter schools.

When these asbestos products are damaged or wear down over time, they put students, teachers and other school employees at risk of asbestos exposure.

Inhaling or ingesting microscopic asbestos fibers can lead to serious health conditions, such as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma, decades after exposure. Asbestos is the primary cause of mesothelioma.

If a school was built before the 1980s, it likely contains some form of asbestos.About half of all schools in the U.S. were built between 1950 and 1969 —a time when asbestos was added to virtually every kind of building material to increase durability and fire resistance.

At that time, the general public wasn’t aware of the health dangers of asbestos exposure. Products containing asbestos do not pose a threat if left intact and undisturbed. But most of these materials are now deteriorating and can be easily damaged during negligent maintenance work or improper procedures.

About crossingsauthor

Judy Fleagle spent 22 years teaching 1st and 2nd grades and 21 years as editor/staff writer with Oregon Coast and Northwest Travel magazines.Since 2009, she has written five books: "Crossings: McCullough's Coastal Bridges," "The Crossings Guide to Oregon's Coastal Spans," "Around Florence," "Devil Cat and Other Colorful Animals I Have Known," and "The Oregon Coast Guide to the UNEXPECTED!!!."
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2 Responses to #321-The WHY behind my cancer . . .

  1. Evelyne Carson says:

    It is so sad that even after knowing about asbestos danger nobody really was willing to invest a lot of money to replace it and to protect all those who were in these rooms daily. There have been class act cases for less reasons….I like your attentive attitude!

  2. Phyllis Bright says:

    Very interesting Judy! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

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