A Hollywood Outlaw
- The late Hollywood icon Steve McQueen, who died from mesothelioma at 50 years old, would have turned 91 today.
- The rebellious Le Mans film star lived a full life of fast cars, was married multiple times, and pushed limits until the end, dying in Mexico while undergoing unconventional treatments for his cancer.
- A leading expert talks to SurvivorNet about mesothelioma, the most dangerous cancer, and its asbestos connection.
The rebellious icon with the rugged good looks, who famously went against the grain from the typical Hollywood leading man status, died from pleural mesothelioma in 1980 at a young 50 years old. This rare type of cancer develops in the thin tissue lining the lungs (the pleura).Read More
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The Indiana-born heartthrob had two children with his first wife, actress and singer Neile Adams, 88: Chad McQueen, 60, and the late Teri McQueen, who died at 38 of respiratory failure.
Two of McQueen’s grandkids, Madi and Chase McQueen, manage their late grandpa’s Instagram page, where they continue to share his legacy.
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McQueen, who spent his early life in reform schools and served three years in the Marine Corps, first rose to fame playing a bounty hunter in the Wanted: Dead or Alive TV series. He went on to star in films such as The Sand Pebbles, for which he received an Oscar nomination; racing film Le Mans; Bullitt, another car flick; and heist movie The Getaway with his second wife, Ali MacGraw.
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A Mesothelioma Diagnosis
When McQueen was diagnosed with cancer in 1979, he decided to go to Mexico for some “unconventional and controversial” treatment, since the cancer was spreading throughout his upper body and there were no traditional methods that could help him at that point.
“The program included intramuscular injections of animal cells, large doses of vitamins, an organic diet and the use of frequent coffee enemas,” according to a 1980 L.A. Times article.
McQueen ultimately died from a heart attack due to complications from his cancer, according to his publicist. However, a surgeon from the Mexican hospital told reporters at the time that he died shortly after a three-hour surgery.
Cesar Santos Vargas, a heart and kidney specialist with the Santa Rosa Clinic in Juarez, said he had found “a very huge tumor in the right lung which was malignant and had spread to his left lung, neck and down into the intestines.” The surgeon said that McQueen was in good spirits after the surgery, and that his heart was screened prior, but then the actor took a turn for the worse, and an embolism developed. (An embolism is an obstructed artery due to a blood clot or air bubble.)
Model Barbara Minty, whom McQueen married in January 1980, was at his beside on November 7, 1980 when he died. He cremated and his ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
Asbestos and Mesothelioma
McQueen had a two-pack per day smoking habit, according Dr. Vargas, but leading experts say that the main cause of mesothelioma is indeed asbestos, which is a naturally-occurring mineral used as an insulating material, which was more commonly used up until the 70s when it was finally linked to cancer.
Dr. Joseph Friedberg, head of the Division of Thoracic Surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said mesothelioma’s survival rate is generally no longer than one to two years, and it is one of the deadliest cancers.
“The overwhelming majority of the time, [the cancer] is caused by asbestos, Dr. Friedberg tells SurvivorNet, explaining that one of the main symptoms is shortness of breath. “Most often, they’ll get diagnosed as having a pneumonia or something else because someone listens to them, they have decreased breath sounds, they get treated. So because it’s such a rare cancer, it is often misdiagnosed for several months.”
Current Therapies for Mesothelioma
New Treatment Options
Treatments for mesothelioma have been slow over the years, but now there are a few options for those facing the disease. In October 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new first-line mesothelioma treatment called Opdivo-Yervoy Drug Therapy, which combines two immunotherapy drugs Opdivo (nivolumab) and Yervoy (ipilimumab) to help destroy cancerous cells. While evaluating results of this therapy, researchers found that these two drugs may be able to limit tumor growth by increasing the function of patients’ T-cells.
In a clinical trial, patients diagnosed with mesothelioma were divided into two groups where one set of patients received only chemotherapy while the others received the combination of drugs. According to results, patients who received by Opdivo and Yervoy survived an average of 18.1 months after diagnosis while the patients who received chemotherapy alone survived only 14.1 months.
In 2019, the FDA approved NovoCure’s NovoTTF-100L System, which is a wearable medical device about the size of a backpack that uses electric fields to disrupt solid tumor cancer cell division. This development marked the first treatment to be approved for mesothelioma in the last 15 years.
Before the NovoTTF-100L approval, the only FDA-approved therapy for patients with these types of mesothelioma was a combination of chemotherapy drugs called pemetrexed and cisplatin. The new NovoCure system will also have to be used in combination with chemotherapy. While testing this treatment, researchers found that median survival rate for people treated with the new system plus chemotherapy was 18.2 months. However, it’s important to note that only 80 people participated in the trial.
“Typically, mesothelioma patients who cannot have surgery receive palliative care to mitigate their symptoms,” Mary Hesdorffer, executive director of the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, previously told SurvivorNet. “NovoTTF-100L provides unresectable (malignant pleural mesothelioma) patients with a treatment option that may improve survival. We are encouraged by the FDA approval and hope it is just the beginning of innovation in the treatment of this aggressive disease.”