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Unbeknownst To Sandie, She Was Breathing In Asbestos At Work

Sandie Foreman was working as a makeup artist when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of asbestos-related cancer. 

It was 2016, and the then 58-year-old was fit and healthy, going on regular runs with her dog. Little did she know she was breathing in fibres at work.

It started with a small ache in her lower abdomen. After a visit to the doctor, an X-ray picked up a small lesion on the bottom of her left lung.

"I had no respiratory symptoms at all -- no chest pain, no breathing difficulties whatsoever," Foreman told 10 daily.

Sandi Foreman was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2016. Image: Supplied

"At first, my doctor dismissed it as a bit of scar tissue ... but I went back three months later and another X-ray picked up a couple of other lesions further up my lung."

After multiple biopsies, CT scans and MRIs, Foreman was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer affecting the mesothelial cells which cover most internal organs such as the lungs, heart and bowel.

The main form of mesothelioma develops in the chest and involves the lining of the lungs, but is not a lung cancer -- and is treated differently.

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Australia has one of the world's highest incidents of this rare and aggressive cancer per capita in the world, with over 700 people diagnosed in 2017, according to the latest data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). That equates to two cases diagnosed per day.

Director of the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute (ADRI) Professor Ken Takahashi said doctors and scientists are confident in its cause.

"The scientific consensus is that more than 90 percent of this cancer is caused by exposure to asbestos," he told 10 daily.

"In that sense, unlike most other causes of cancer that are multi factorial, this is very unique."

Australia banned the use of all forms of asbestos in 2004. Prior to this, it was used in more than 3,000 products in the construction industry, in industrial plants and equipment, and in ships, trains and cars.

A large amount still remains in buildings and other infrastructure, according to the AIHW, with thousands of products containing asbestos still in use today.

“Although asbestos was banned in Australia ... our legacy affords us the unenviable statistic of continuing to record the world’s highest number of mesothelioma deaths per capita," Takahashi said.

While those diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma in the past were primarily men caused by work-related exposure, the Australian Mesothelioma Registry in 2016 recorded one-third of Australians were exposed to asbestos fibres in non-work-related situations.

Of those, around 50 percent were women, with major home renovations involving products containing asbestos a common cause.

Image: Supplied

In Foreman's case, she was not working in an at-risk industry at the time of her diagnosis.

"I was working as a makeup artist and hairdresser. Only hindsight revealed there was asbestos in one of our corridors," she said.

"Meanwhile, my brother was working as an apprentice in an environment where he knew there was asbestos every day and he never had a problem."

"The thing with mesothelioma is you don't need to have a certain amount of exposure. One fibre is enough."

Mesothelioma has a very poor prognosis and is often diagnosed once it has reached advanced stages -- as early symptoms can go unnoticed. Though, exposure does not always result in the disease. 

"I was either very unlucky or very lucky that mine got picked up early enough to be treated," Foreman said.

"The majority of people don't know they have been exposed until it's too late, until they have symptoms and cannot breathe."

Foreman underwent six rounds of chemotherapy followed by major surgery which saw the majority of her organs on the left side of her torso removed.

With one lung, doctors told her she would not return to a normal life -- let alone run a marathon -- for at least two years.

"For me, I didn't want to accept that."

Last year, Foreman walked the City 2 Surf with her dogs. This weekend, she and Takahashi are taking part the Meso March in May to raise awareness and show support for others living with mesothelioma.

"People can't be complacent about being in environments where there could be asbestos," she said.

Foreman wants to see more work being done in both exposure prevention and early detection of the cancer.

"It's frustrating. We know what causes it, we know how to fix it ... Sometimes I just want to shake someone and say, why aren't we doing more to prevent this?"

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Takahashi acknowledged Australia's 'Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency' as an example of "affirmative action" being taken to prevent exposure to asbestos.

His institute is among those working on new and effective treatments for the cancer and other asbestos-related diseases, but said the survival rate remains poor.

"About half of patients with mesothelioma die within a year of diagnosis. We need to improve that," he said.

Featured image: Supplied