In 1974, Steve McQueen was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. In 1979, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. One year later, at the age of 50, McQueen passed away after an unsuccessful surgery to remove the cancer.
McQueen was a true American icon. On screen, he played heroes who straddled the divide between the ideals of post-WWII America and the social revolutions of the 60s and 70s. He was a rebel and a leader, and he performed many of his own stunts in car chases and on motorcycles.
“I’m not sure whether I’m an actor who races or a racer who acts,” McQueen is reported to have said. He starred in films featuring the best talent of his generation, including, “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Great Escape,” “Papillon,” and “Bullitt.” By the force of his persona, he brought complex and believable characters to life.
Many of his co-stars, including James Garner, Richard Attenborough and Charles Bronson, continued successful careers into the new millennium. Sadly, McQueen was taken early by mesothelioma, a preventable cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. During his youth and throughout his career, asbestos usage was at its highest point in recorded history. Like many other veterans, McQueen was likely exposed to asbestos during his military service.
On Sept 28, 2019, the 11th annual Miles for Mesothelioma 5k will take place in Alton, Illinois. For the asbestos prevention community, it’s one of the most visible opportunities to raise money for and awareness about mesothelioma.
This year, Miles for Meso will feature one of McQueen’s motorcycles. In a special tribute to his memory, a personal bike of McQueen’s—a 1938 Triumph 500cc 5T Speed Twin—will be on display and available for anyone who attends the race to view.
Honoring McQueen and his fight for treatment in this way serves to remind us of how far the asbestos prevention community has come since the 1980s when survivors struggling for answers did not have the support they deserved.
‘Honey, There Is Something Really, Really Wrong with Me. And I Know It.’
In 2012, McQueen’s widow, Barbara Minty McQueen, accepted the Warren Zevon Keep Me in Your Heart Tribute Award at the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) annual conference. The award is named after singer Warren Zevon, another famous life cut short by asbestos-related disease. She currently serves as ADAO’s Celebrity Advisory Co-Chair, along with Jordan Zevon.
During the 2012 award ceremony, Barbara spoke about how they discovered Steve’s mesothelioma. “His breathing wasn’t quite right,” she said, “He wasn’t the same Steve that I knew, and he was kind of running down. But he wasn’t old enough to be running down.”
Barbara made Steve see the doctor. The local physician referred him to a hospital in Los Angeles to get proper X-rays, but before he went, Barbara recalled:
“He took off on his bike. Finally, after a couple hours, I found him. I knew where he went . . . It was up in the park in Santa Paula, he was sitting up on a picnic table, and he said, ‘Honey there is something really, really wrong with me. And I know it.’”
It was the first time that he’d admitted to her that he was sick. Like so many other widows and families, Barbara began to come to terms with the seriousness of her husband’s disease. He wanted to fight it, and so they did. “You have to have hope. You have to have faith,” she said.
They tried everything they could, including a surgery in Mexico to remove tumors he’d been advised were inoperable. He passed away in a Juarez hospital on Nov. 7, 1980.
“He would be so proud to know there are people out there that are actually going to fight it, try to get something done about it,” Barbara said during to the roomful of mesothelioma survivors and those, like her, who still mourned the loss of someone to this preventable disease.
She concluded by saying, “To see all these people coming together to fight for people and get it out of the system, the country, the schools . . . I think he’d be really proud. I wish he was here to buy you all a beer.”
Steve McQueen’s Bike Rides Again
To arrive in Alton for the race, the motorcycle took its first journey in a long time. It might be safe to say that the motorcycle’s journey began in 2012, when Linda Reinstein, the co-founder and president of ADAO, presented a copy of Barbara McQueen’s photo book to Simmons Hanly Conroy.
Named shareholder John Simmons, an avid biker himself, understood McQueen’s passion for riding on the open road. As someone who has advocated for people harmed by asbestos, Simmons also connected to McQueen’s struggle with mesothelioma. When the chance came up this year to purchase one of the star’s motorcycles, Simmons made the fitting purchase.
The bike will be on permanent display at Simmons Hanly Conroy, and viewable to all the public during Miles for Meso. Come and join the event. Be a part of McQueen’s next story.
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