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Mesothelioma survivor talks about asbestos awareness and advice

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Epifanio Figueroa, who has peritoneal mesothelioma, tells the Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com that he was exposed to asbestos through both primary and secondary exposure. He says his father's occupational asbestos exposure and then his own occupational exposure put him at risk.

Epifano says his father was a taxi driver and later sold used car parts. While working on cars, he was also exposed to asbestos in car parts.

“I first came into contact with asbestos through car brakes,” Epifanio explained. “I was also a mechanic in our household, so I would take cars apart and come into contact with asbestos.”

In addition to exposure to asbestos products from the automotive industry, he also had other occupational exposures. Epifano says he was exposed to the dust while overseeing the demolition of several buildings filled with the toxic mineral. He says he also worked as an engineer and was exposed to asbestos dust while doing so.

Symptoms lead to a surprising diagnosis

Epifanio says his symptoms started when his stomach started swelling and wouldn't stop. He went to the doctor, who told him that fluid was accumulating in his abdominal cavity.

The condition is called peritoneal effusion or ascites. Peritoneal fluid can collect in the abdomen and cause swelling or pain.

“So we went to a hospital called Memorial West in Florida and they told us they weren't sure,” Epifanio said. “So we went to the Cleveland Clinic and they diagnosed me with mesothelioma. That was in 2016.”

Epifanio was not expecting to be diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma. In fact, he tells us that before his own diagnosis of mesothelioma, he “didn’t know mesothelioma existed.”

Lack of awareness of asbestos endangers people

“When I was little, we weren't told that asbestos was harmful,” recalls Epifano. “I blew the rims of cars that were filled with asbestos powder. I didn't know that.”

Asbestos is used extensively in many products and occupations. Occupational exposure to asbestos is the leading cause of work-related deaths worldwide.

Epifano says: “Even when I was an engineer at a pharmaceutical company, they didn't tell us that asbestos was harmful. They just told us to put on a small mask so we wouldn't breathe in the dust.”

He believes that a lack of information about the dangers of asbestos poses a threat to people's future health. According to Epifano, people are unprotected due to a lack of knowledge about asbestos.

“I think that's one of the things that has caused a lot of harm to people. They don't know, they don't have that information, because the people who actually make all these things don't want us to know how dangerous it is,” Epifanio said.

His mother's request gave him strength, which he shares with other survivors

Epifanio is the eldest of 12 siblings in his family. His mother died when she was only 44 years old and Epifano was 22. His youngest sisters were 4 and 5 years old.

“One of my mother's last words to me was, 'Please take care of your sisters,'” Epifano said. “From then on, that was my duty.”

He said he felt he had to honor his mother's wishes and be strong for his family. Years later, when he himself received the diagnosis, he used that strength and perseverance to continue to be there for his family.

“You're seen as the head of the family and then you get the diagnosis and you're going to die. It was a big shock,” he said. “But at the same time, I felt strong and I wanted to tackle it. I wanted to fight it. And that's exactly what we did.”

As a mesothelioma survivor, Epifanio admits that it can be scary to learn you have an aggressive form of cancer, but he wants other survivors to know that it is not necessarily a death sentence.

“I would tell anyone that nothing is certain. The 'certain death' they tell you is not certain. You can live the same life as before, or even a better one,” he said.

“It's up to you to be brave and not let the sadness around you make you sad,” he advised. “Everyone else around you will be sad and that can make you depressed. And once you're depressed, you stop fighting for your life. So you have to ignore the sadness you see around you and think about your potential.”