Columnist Army Archerd Dies from Mesothelioma

Legendary Hollywood columnist, Army Archerd, 87, died Tuesday at Ronald Reagan UCLA Hospital, of mesothelioma. Archerd has been a prolific Hollywood reporter for more than 50 years at Daily Variety. He shocked the entertainment world in 1985 when he announced that actor Rock Hudson had died of AIDS. According to his wife, Selma, Archerd was diagnosed with mesothelioma five years ago, and that doctors believe his exposure to shipyard asbestos while he was in the Navy during WWII was the cause. Mesothelioma is the same cancer which caused the death of actor Steve McQueen in 1980 (one of the case studies in Dr. Barron Lerner’s book When Illness Goes Public:Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine). McQueen also had exposure to asbestos as a movie stuntman, race car driver, and aboard a troop ship as a Marine.

Mesothelioma (sometimes called meso) is a rare cancer of the mesothelium, the lining of the chest cavity. The mesothelium consists of two layers of cells, one which covers the lungs, and the other which covers the inner chest wall. The mesothelial cells produce a small amount of fluid (pleural fluid) which provide lubrication between these two layers, and allow the organs of the chest (lungs, heart, blood vessels) to move smoothly in the chest. The “potential space” between these two layers is called the pleural space, and is usually very small, as the two layers normally slide against each other. In disease states (such as pneumonia, congestive heart failure, as well as mesothelioma) additional fluid can be produced, leading to a pool of pleural fluid into the pleural space called a pleural effusion.

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Mesothelioma is relatively rare, with 2000-3000 cases a year. It primarily occurs in men. Exposure to asbestos, often 20-30 years prior to diagnosis, has been linked to the disease. According to the American Cancer Society:

“Asbestos is the name of a group of minerals that occur naturally as masses of strong, flexible fibers that can be separated into thin threads and woven. Asbestos has been widely used in many industrial products, including cement, brake linings, roof shingles, flooring products, textiles, and insulation. Asbestos has been mined and used commercially since the late 1800s. Its use greatly increased during World War II. Since the early 1940s, millions of American workers have been exposed to asbestos dust. Initially, the risks associated with asbestos exposure were not known. However, an increased risk of developing mesothelioma was later found among shipyard workers, peoplewho work in asbestos mines and mills, producers of asbestos products, workers in the heating and construction industries, and other tradespeople. Today, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets limits for acceptable levels of asbestos exposure in the workplace. People who work with asbestos wear personal protective equipment to lower their risk of exposure.”

Symptoms include cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, as well as weight loss and fatigue. As these are the same symptoms as many other illnesses, the diagnosis ultimately depends on a biopsy of the tumor. As with all cancers, treatment depends on the location, stage of the cancer, and the patient’s age and general state of health. Treatment can consist of surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.

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Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

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