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Victims unite to fight deadly disease
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Floyd Paaso was diagnosed 18 months ago with mesothelioma. The disease normally kills within a year. He had major surgery, and has been testing cancer-free since then. (MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill)
Doctors expect the incidence of mesothelioma to increase in the next 20 years. It's one of the deadliest forms of cancer. It attacks the lining of the lung, and it's caused by exposure to asbestos. Northeastern Minnesota has a higher rate of mesothelioma than the rest of the state. The health dept says it's because of industries in the region, including shipbuilding during World War II. Nationwide, about 3,000 people are diagnosed with the disease every year. Now in Minnesota, doctors and patients are working to get the word out about mesothelioma.

Duluth, Minn. — Floyd Paaso and his wife Jackie live just outside Duluth. The two-car garage is perfect for puttering.

Out the back window you can see the trout pond they dug. Somehow the perch have taken over the pond, and there aren't many trout left.

When we heard the word, we didn't know what it meant, or even how to say it.
- Floyd Paaso, mesothelioma patient

But Floyd Paaso doesn't have much energy for fishing these days anyway.

Paaso retired seven years ago. He was a sheet metal worker for 30 years, bending steel for heating ducts in homes and businesses.

Two years ago he noticed he was running out of breath when he walked uphill, so he went in for an x-ray.

"My right side lung came back on the x-ray just all shaded either gray or black because it was full of liquid," Paaso says. "And they took over two liters of fluid out of my right lung or chest cavity."

After some tests, the doctors told Paaso he had mesothelioma.

"When we heard the word, we didn't know what it meant, or even how to say it," Paaso recalls.

Paaso learned it's a form of cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs. It's the disease that killed Congressman Bruce Vento. It's caused by exposure to asbestos.

Paaso consulted an oncologist in Duluth. "He said if I took chemo, I might live for a year," Paaso says.

For most people diagnosed with mesothelioma, it's a death sentence. They'll probably die within twelve months.

Paaso decided to get a second opinion. He ended up at the University of Minnesota Cancer Center. His doctors there removed the lining around his right lung, the lung itself, parts of the lining of his heart and diaphram, and some lymph nodes.

Peter Dahlberg is the surgeon who treated Floyd Paaso. He says there aren't many effective tools for dealing with mesothelioma.

"There's not an easy way to make the early diagnosis," Dahlberg says. "There's not a very good treatment for it right now, and the outcome is certainly worse than the majority of cancers that we see."

The fibers can hide in the body for thirty years or more without causing any problems. But when the cancer starts, it usually spreads very fast.

Asbestos-related diseases made headlines a few years ago when virtually the entire town of Libby, Montana, was found to be contaminated with asbestos. The town made its living mining vermiculite, which turned out to have asbestos in it.

Doctors are trying to find better ways to catch mesothelioma early, and are working on drugs to treat it.

Floyd Paaso had his surgery a year and a half ago. He gets tested every three months, and so far he's been cancer-free.

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Image Jackie Paaso and Jodi Helmer

Paaso's daughter, Jodi Helmer, says when her dad first told her about the mesothelioma, it was like crashing into a brick wall. No one seemed to know anything about it, and the family felt very alone.

She decided to start a support group, to help other people facing the same shock. The first meeting was last month, and more than a dozen people came.

"You know, it's nice for everybody to get together and talk, share their emotions, hopefully give some kind of support," she says. "So you did feel a very unique bond with these people because they understand. They have been through it."

Jodi Helmer and her parents are making plans to go to Washington D.C. in the next few weeks. They plan to talk to senators about a couple of competing bills. One would limit lawsuits against asbestos companies. The Paasos say that's unfair to sick workers. The Paasos like a different bill. That one would ban asbestos in the U.S.

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