It was the best job Jack Doherty ever had; the one he spent so many years doing in south Wairarapa.
The men he worked with were good blokes: hard players and hard workers who thoroughly enjoyed getting up every morning to do the job. They laughed a lot.
It was great fun, demolishing and renovating old houses then heading off for a beer afterwards, and Jack says it was a time and bunch of friends he’ll never forget.
“You’d die to have a job like that, and we literally did.”
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Angela Calver’s sister-in-law, Deanna Trevarthen, died in 2016 from an aggressive form of cancer. Calver vowed she’d continue Trevarthen’s court battle against ACC to get health cover for the condition.
In the decades since those happy days, four of Jack’s mates have died of cancer; right now he’s dying of it too.
Having survived throat cancer years ago, the Eastbourne man was last year diagnosed with mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer directly linked to asbestos, a material found in properties built before the year 2000.
Dr Terri-Ann Berry, an associate professor at Unitec, says Doherty’s story is like those of so many others of his time who were unaware of the danger asbestos posed.
And while that danger is now well known, Berry despairs that it’s being ignored by some in the building trade but especially DIYers.
“Mesothelioma is absolutely deadly, but it’s absolutely preventable; that’s the crazy thing.”
The product is mostly safe when left alone but when disturbed through cutting, sanding, water-blasting or demolition, breathing in its dust poses a deadly health threat.
Responsible for about 170 deaths a year, asbestos is New Zealand’s number one killer in the workplace, though mesothelioma takes decades before symptoms present; the typical life expectancy after prognosis is a year to 18 months.
Berry says historically the disease has been found in older people, but that’s changing.
“Just the other day a 49-year-old builder passed away from mesothelioma; that’s becoming something we’re seeing more than before. People are under the illusion it’s still a “granddad” problem.”
Of Doherty’s four old workmates who died of cancer, mesothelioma was responsible for one of them, and when Doherty broke a couple of ribs in 2021 an x-ray discovered significant fluid in his left lung. Further testing eventually confirmed a diagnosis of malignant pleural mesothelioma, caused by asbestos.
“It was sobering being told that untreated, my life expectancy for this stage of mesothelioma was on average only seven months, but they had already spent six months looking for the cancer.”
Many older buildings have to have asbestos removed to make them safe.
Since then he’s had a few months of chemotherapy and immunotherapy though treatment has stopped because the cancer is growing. He credits his specialists for getting him this far, saying that although they can’t save or cure him the next best thing is keeping him well.
“At the moment I’m in a contented space; fortunately I’m not in any pain, I’m just losing weight and my breath is getting more and more laboured… there’s an inevitability about that.”
Doherty and his mates were unaware of the hazard all those years ago; there were no such things as masks on worksites back then, and even if they were he admits they might not have been used. Even so, they didn’t know.
“If we knew at that stage we would’ve certainly considered it, but we never even had that opportunity.
“We used to pull down 100-year-old ceilings – goodness knows what was in there and at the end of the day blew your nose and got rid of what ever was up it and went to have a beer.”
He says he’s sharing his story as a warning to other chippies and DIYers. Perhaps more than anyone he knows how annoying it is to pause during building work; time equals money after all; as well as the temptation to just breathe out, not in, if asbestos is present.
Juan Zarama Perini/Stuff
Jack Doherty’s former colleagues have died of cancer, one of them from mesothelioma.
“Its totally understandable behaviour,” he says, “but it’s deadly dangerous.”
Berry says that’s what makes it all the more frustrating now because checking for the product is relatively cheap and easy.
Licenced asbestos assessments cost as little as $100 and should be used by anyone planning even the smallest home renovations that involve disturbing building materials, including water blasting.
She has asbestos in her own house and isn’t concerned because, like everyone else should, she knows where it is and avoids disturbing it; advising any tradespeople to do the same.
Berry and other professionals have recently launched The Mesothelioma Support and Asbestos Awareness Trust (MSAA) to raise awareness – not hysteria – and support both people with the disease and those supporting them.
National Mesothelioma Awareness day is on Monday, September 26, and the trust is selling pearl-coloured ribbons to raise donations.
“Asbestos doesn’t need to be scary; it’s 100% manageable. Let’s try and combat a disease that’s preventable.”
As for Doherty, years after that dream job he became a tutor and assessor in adult education and training, before retiring at 70 and turning his focus to documenting his Irish whakapapa for future generations of his whānau.
He’s been making the most of both the time and quality of life he has left; making it “onto the bench” for the recent Irish rugby tour and travelling with three mates in a camper van.
His large network of whānau and friends are learning to pronounce ‘mesothelioma’, and his wife Joanne and their five adult children have been wonderful supports.
He’s learnt to pronounce ‘mesothelioma’ as well and sounds it out over the phone between coughs and gasps. It’s a nasty little critter, but he’s not angry or bitter, saying the deadly consequence of those wonderful years spent working with friends hasn’t tarnished his memories.
“I’m very resigned to the future, I have 14 grandchildren and to live to see your children have children is a wonderful thing.”
And as for that long-ago team: those friends who demolished houses; drank beer; and cleared their noses unaware of what their work had cost them.
“Quite a lot of them are dead, so I’m looking forward to getting up there and having a chat: “what was that all about boys?”.