Raising awareness of rare form of cancer

Elaine Foreman, who is raising awareness about mesothelioma, with her husband Gerry Simpson. Picture by Jane Coltman
Elaine Foreman, who is raising awareness about mesothelioma, with her husband Gerry Simpson. Picture by Jane Coltman

“I take the approach that I am living with cancer, not dying of it.”

Those are the brave and inspirational words of Elaine Foreman, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma in October last year.

Currently, there is no preventative treatment or cure for the condition, which is caused by exposure to asbestos and affects the lining of the lungs or abdomen.

And the 70-year-old, from Longhoughton, has decided to speak out about the little-known and rare form of cancer, on Action Mesothelioma Day today.

The nationwide event aims to raise awareness of mesothelioma, as well as rallying for better treatment and care for those suffering from the disease.

Campaigners will also call for the prevention of asbestos exposure and a ban on the export of asbestos to developing countries.

For Elaine, who also has multiple sclerosis (MS), her diagnosis came completely out of the blue, when an x-ray for pneumonia flagged up something more sinister, before a CT scan revealed that she was living with the deadly disease.

By her own admission, she has good days and bad days, but she is determined to stay positive and do all she can to raise awareness of the condition.

She said: “I had never even heard of mesothelioma. It was a shock.

“At the moment, there is no cure, so there is only one way it can go. It is how it is – we are talking reality.

“The main thing is coming to terms with cancer.

“Like anyone who has cancer, it is quite a thing to be told. But I take the approach that I am living with cancer, not dying of cancer.”

The main cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibre, which was widely used in construction and other industries until the late 1990s. The use of products containing asbestos was banned in the UK in 1999, however, there is still tonnes of the stuff found in buildings today.

The deadly fibres lie dormant for anything from 15 to 50 years, so mesothelioma takes a long time to develop from the time of the original exposure.

It means that people who have symptoms now, might have been exposed many years ago.

Elaine said: “It just sits there. I don’t know where I got it from; there are one or two possibilities.

“Not everybody that has been in contact with asbestos gets it.”

Worryingly, the UK has the highest incidence of mesothelioma in the world, with 2,500 people per year diagnosed.

Figures show that the North East is one of the areas worst affected by the disease in the UK.

Elaine said: “It is very prevalent in our region and it is mainly men who are diagnosed, I think because of all of the heavy industry, like ship-building and mining.”

Elaine, who is checked over every three months, admits that the condition can be very erratic, and on her bad days she struggles to breathe properly and has a tight chest.

But she is lucky to have a strong support network around her.

Elaine lives with her husband Gerry Simpson, 65, who also has MS.

The pair go way back.

They first met many years ago at the Bradford MS Society, while they were living in West Yorkshire.

She was originally married to Malcolm, who become a carer to Elaine and also to Gerry in his time of need.

In 2006, the trio upped sticks and all moved in to a property in Longhoughton.

However, in April 2016, a scan revealed that Malcolm had lung cancer.

He died just four months later, aged 74.

Elaine said: “We were all so close – we were a three-legged stool. We lost a leg when Malcolm died.”

It was a difficult time and, three weeks after Malcolm passed, Gerry contracted sepsis and was severely ill.

Amazingly, Elaine and Gerry were offered help once again, this time from Rita and John Braithwaite, who agreed to move in with them in Longhoughton to become their carers – but friends primarily.

And just before Christmas, Gerry asked Elaine to marry him. She said yes, and the pair tied the knot this year amid the severe snowfall during the Beast from the East.­

Despite their conditions, Elaine and Gerry try to keep as active as possible. They love visiting places such as the Yorkshire Dales and in October, they are off to the Calvert Trust Kielder, where they will tackle activities such as a zip-wire and wheelchair kayak.

Elaine said: “We make sure that we have things to look forward to.”

Elaine and Gerry also praised the support of their neighbours, as well as HospiceCare North Northumberland.

And as part of the amazing support network, their friend Rita, who is a horticultural expert, is involved in a fund-raiser for the Mick Knighton Mesothelioma Research Fund (MKMRF) and the Paul Redhead Asbestos Support Awareness Group.

On Wednesday, December 12, Alnwick and District Flower Club will present a demonstration of floral art, in aid of the two causes.

It will take place at Stannington Village Hall, from 1pm to 4pm, with tea served from 12.30pm.

There will be a range of stalls, a raffle and tombola.

Tickets are £8. For details, contact Rita on 01665 577800 or email braithwaite48@btinternet.com

The MKMRF was launched in 2002 and its aim is to promote greater awareness while funding much-needed research into the disease.

If you need advice or support about mesothelioma, call the British Lung Foundation helpline on 03000 030555, Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.