Denis Melody was a world champion rower and marathon runner from Cottingley in Yorkshire, U.K. Yet even if you are a devoted aficionado of such sports, chances are that unless you’re from that part of the U.K., you’ve never heard of him. Denis, who managed a leather processing plant, competed in rowing competitions until about a year and a half ago, when he began to develop chest pains. The diagnosis was mesothelioma, which killed this vigorous world-class athlete this past January. Of course, stories about athletes who contract diseases that kill them at the top of their games are hardly unique or even that unusual. However, Denis’ story is all the more remarkable when you know that he was 84 years old at the time of his death–meaning he was still competing at the age of 82! The man who maintained vibrant health and vitality well into his ninth decade on the planet was no match for the asbestos used to lag the machinery with which he worked until he was 77, however–or the asbestos used on the naval ships aboard which he sailed as a Royal Marine. Taking up rowing the year he retired, Denis won the gold medal in the world championship men’s veteran class when he was 80.
Ironically, he also spent a great deal of time raising money for cancer victims. This is another example of the lengthy latency period of asbestos. Chances are that asbestos can remain in one’s lungs for 10, 20 or even 50 years before its effects become deadly–but when disease does appear, death often comes relatively quickly. Recent research indicates that chronic inflammation due to the presence of asbestos fibers may be the culprit–suggesting that with early enough diagnosis, the cancer may be prevented by taking a simple anti-inflammatory drug. Such knowledge was too late for Denis Melody, who spent his life striving to remain active and in good health at an age at which many have one foot in the grave. Ultimately, the only opponent that could defeat him was one that plays rough and dirty–asbestos. Nonetheless, Denis’ life, and particularly his last seven years on earth, should inspire all of us.