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Peritoneal Mesothelioma features on Call the Midwife

On Sunday evenings, we’re usually just enjoying the last few hours of the weekend and trying not to think about work. However, last night, whilst watching Call the Midwife, it was impossible not to cast our minds to our clients as it was revealed that one of the characters was suffering with the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma.

Gladys’ father had been at the end of his life and sadly passed away at the beginning of the episode. It then transpired that she was not in good health herself and was suffering with severe stomach pains. The local doctor urgently referred her to a specialist, and she was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma.

After being told the cancer is caused by asbestos, Gladys informed the doctor that she had never worked with the substance herself. However, her father used to drill asbestos in his work and would rush home, still in his work clothes, to put her to bed each night and so she was exposed to the dust from him.

In the episode, Gladys is told that the cancer is terminal and is offered the chance to join a medical trial which could give her a few more months of life, however, she declines and breaks the news to her family that she is dying.

How true to life is the storyline?

Firstly, we would like to commend the Call the Midwife writers for bringing this subject to the masses. Many people are not aware of the danger of asbestos and the devastation a disease like mesothelioma can cause.

The current series is set in the late 1960’s and asbestos would still be being used at this time, with workers not knowing the dangers of using asbestos.

Secondary exposure

The exposure Gladys had to asbestos came from her father’s work clothes. This is known as secondary exposure, and we have acted for a number of clients who have been exposed to asbestos through a family member’s clothes.

As the people working with asbestos did not know of the dangers of the substance, they did not know that they should keep their dusty work clothes away from their wives and children. It was commonplace for workers to return home in their dirty clothes and overalls and wives would shake these to get as much of the dust out as possible before washing the clothes.

In addition to their clothes, there would be asbestos dust in the workers’ hair and on their skin and, given that homes did not have modern bathroom facilities, they could not properly wash the dust off themselves on a regular basis.

Peritoneal mesothelioma

Mesothelioma can affect the lining of any of the body’s organs. The most common type of mesothelioma affects the lungs and is called pleural mesothelioma. The second most common type of mesothelioma affects the abdomen and is called peritoneal mesothelioma.

Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma can include:

  • Stomach pain
  • Bloating
  • Swelling
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in bowel movement

With regards to the symptoms, the programme did well to capture these, showing Gladys with a distended stomach and in considerable pain.

Diagnosis of any form of mesothelioma can be difficult as there are a number of other, more common, conditions that can cause the same symptoms. Nowadays, diagnosis is done through x-rays and CT scans and biopsies.

Latency period

There is a latency period from the time of the exposure to asbestos to a person developing symptoms of mesothelioma. This is between 10 and 50 years. Although the age of the characters isn’t known, Gladys had been exposed to asbestos as a child and looked to be at least 40 years of age, which would allow for enough time to have passed for her to develop mesothelioma.

Some people may wonder why, if Gladys got mesothelioma from her father’s clothes, he did not suffer in the same way. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer, and it does not affect everyone who has been exposed to asbestos. It is believed that other factors are at play when it comes to who will suffer with mesothelioma, such as the BAP1 gene mutation. We have acted for multiple people who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma following secondary exposure to asbestos from a family member’s clothes, where the person who worked directly with asbestos was not affected.

Still relevant today

Sadly, although Call the Midwife is set in the past, the issue raised in last night’s episode is an ongoing one. Asbestos was not fully banned in the UK until 2000 and although the use of asbestos began to decrease in the 1980’s, we can expect people to continue to be affected by mesothelioma until 2050 at least.

Although new asbestos cannot be used in the UK, there are still thousands of buildings in the UK that contain asbestos. Unfortunately, we are still contacted on a weekly basis by people who have had recent exposure to asbestos at work because surveys have not been undertaken or looked at and so sadly, the legacy of asbestos will continue.

How can we help?

If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma or any other asbestos-related condition, whether you were exposed to asbestos in a school or any other building, we can help. Contact us today on our freephone number 0800 038 6767. Alternatively, head over to the Contact Us page, complete the form and we will be in touch.

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