Hull was once renowned for its thriving shipbuilding industry, which offered employment to thousands of men living in the area. But workers are now paying a heavy price for their toil.
Despite widespread knowledge of the dangers of asbestos, those who worked in the shipyards were continuously exposed to the hazardous material, and this has led to a steady increase in the number of people diagnosed with mesothelioma, a particularly aggressive type of lung cancer, in recent years.
Mesothelioma patient Colin Russell, from Sutton-on-Hull, was diagnosed with the disease in May. He is now helping Yorkshire Cancer Research improve the diagnosis, treatment and care of people living with lung cancer.
“I don’t feel bitter about anything. It’s done and that’s it.”
This is how Colin Russell responds when asked if he feels angry about his diagnosis with mesothelioma. It’s an attitude that’s strongly reflective of the ‘Yorkshire grit’ and stoicism that shapes our region.
Colin was born 11 years after the end of the Second World War, when the government invested in a huge shipbuilding programme. After leaving school at 14, he went straight to the docks.
Back then, shipping companies used asbestos, a natural fibrous rock, as a heat insulator within marine decking, and Colin was often required to work directly with the fibres.
Even then, there were suspicions that the material was unsafe.
“When I was in training, I asked my supervisor if asbestos was dangerous and he told me it wasn’t. We were all misled. The government knew how bad it was, but it was in everything. We were all still working with it. It was just part and parcel of the ship building industry.
“I’ve been told the government would sooner pay people off or let them die than invest in a cure.”
Colin, now 60, is a former record-breaking weightlifter who spent his whole life training at various gyms in Hull. Until his diagnosis, he was known as the ‘kingpin’ at his local gym Bodyworld, giving advice and beating younger members in press-up challenges.
He has never smoked or been an excessive drinker, and says that had he not taken such good care of his health, he might not have realised there was something wrong.
“We’d just been to Spain to visit my partner Allyson’s mum, and I’d been as right as rain,” he explains. “Everything was fine. But when I went to the gym and tried to do what I usually do, I suffered from a massive oxygen debt.”
Colin went to see his doctor who noticed a swelling in his stomach, and eventually he was sent to Diadem Medical Practice for an x-ray. Only one of Colin’s lungs appeared on the images, which raised alarm bells with radiographers, and he was referred to Hull Royal Infirmary.
There he was diagnosed with a ‘pleural effusion’, which meant that excess fluid was building around his lung. The fluid was drained and after three days in hospital he returned to his job as a transport manager at Rowcol Engineering.
However, he was forced to return to hospital on two more occasions, and each time more fluid was drained from his lung. The fluid had been putting pressure on his heart and stomach, making it difficult for him to breathe. He was told that he was lucky he hadn’t had a heart attack.
Doctors took a sample from the tissue covering Colin’s lung and, after finding cancerous cells, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma.
He has been told that the cancer is terminal despite being caught at an early stage, but he is currently undergoing a course of chemotherapy at the Queen’s Centre at Castle Hill Hospital to try to keep the disease at bay and stop it from progressing further.
The treatment means he now suffers from sickness, vertigo and pain in his feet, but he is hopeful that it will buy him some valuable time and he will be able to enjoy his final months.
“When you’re told you’re going to die, you don’t just get on with your life. Everything grinds to a halt. I lost interest in everything. I couldn’t read a magazine or the paper. I thought, is there any point if I’m going to die?
“But I’ve had good support from friends, telling me I will get through this. The sickness means that I can’t go out or do anything. But I’m hoping that with the help of the hospital, I will get some sort of quality of life back. Maybe a weekend away or a day out, just small things.”
Colin has been with his partner Allyson for 10 years, and they have five grandchildren between them. Since Colin’s diagnosis, Allyson has become his full-time carer. At a time when they would have been looking forward to retirement, the couple are now preparing for Colin’s death.
“You leave school, you go to work and you progress in life, and then you aim for retirement. We had all sorts of plans. Now we’re sorting out all our loose ends in case I die. We’re also talking to our solicitor to arrange compensation.
“We might have to move if I can no longer get up the stairs. I’ve been here since I was a lad. All our friends are round here. There’s so much to think about as well as dealing with the illness.”
Colin is now keen to encourage others to take their health seriously and to exercise as much as they can. He is also taking part in a Yorkshire Cancer Research investigation into cancer inequalities in Hull and East Yorkshire. The study is aiming to improve the early recognition of people with cancer, reduce the number of people diagnosed as an emergency, and determine the needs of all advanced cancer patients so that they receive appropriate care in the most appropriate place.
“We’ll do anything we can do help others,” Colin says. “People often wonder if it’s worth training when you’re older. My advice to anyone is to have a little exercise. Even if it’s only walking, if you know your own ability and you can no longer reach that ability then you’ll know that something is wrong. It’s about knowing your own body and getting to the doctors.”
Although voluntary bans on the use of asbestos were introduced in the 1970s, it wasn’t until 1985 that two types of asbestos – amosite (brown) and crocidolite (blue) – were formally banned in the UK. In 1999, the import, supply and use of chrysotile (white) asbestos was outlawed.
By then, asbestos had been used by the construction and manufacturing industries in thousands of different products, from building materials to textiles to car parts.
2,233 people in England died from mesothelioma during 2014 – 221 of those were people living in Yorkshire and the Humber. Asbestos is estimated to cause 94% of mesothelioma cases in the UK. It is rarely possible that doctors are able to cure the disease.
Colin adds: “I don’t feel angry. We’ve had tears and upset but you’ve just got to accept what is happening. I’m just so grateful to the NHS and the staff who saved my life. They’ve been unbelievable with me and I can’t sing their praises enough.”
For more information about mesothelioma, please visit http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/mesothelioma/Pages/Definition.aspx
- Last updated: 15/11/2016
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