Merlin Olsen, an actor and football player best known for his role as Jonathon Garvey in Little House on the Prairie (a series about a pioneer family set in the 19th century in Minnesota), recently revealed that exposure to asbestos when he was young led to his contracting mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is a rare and surprisingly lethal form of cancer that occurs in the mesothelial tissues, or linings, around the heart, lungs and abdominal organs.
Appearing as pleural mesothelioma, or lung cancer, in more than 50 percent of cases, the disease can also appear as pericardial mesothelioma, affecting the heart, in about 5 percent of cases, and as peritoneal mesothelioma, arising in the abdomen, in about 2 percent of cases. Even rarer incidences – of mesothelioma of the tunical tissues (which surround male and female sexual organs) – occur in less than one case per million.
Exact rates of mesothelioma remain difficult to determine due to the fact that doctors frequently misdiagnose it; patients who die from it are not always autopsied; and not all autopsies confirm its presence.
Mesothelioma is particularly lethal because it lies dormant for decades – as it did in Olsen’s case – finally appearing when so many vital tissues and/or organs have been implicated that eradicating it is almost impossible. Most mesothelioma sufferers are given about a year to live.
Aggressive treatments involving surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy with third generation cancer drugs can improve outcomes by about four months, but the best hope is early diagnosis, now made possible by novel testing of pleural effusion fluid for a particular protein marker.
For Olsen, who appeared in about 60 percent of the episodes of Little House on the Prairie, which ran for almost a decade (from 1972 to 1983), the source of his mesothelioma is most likely when he was about 11 years old.
In a case filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Olsen says he worked after school doing manual labor, which caused his exposure. He was also exposed as an adult, while handling drywall. Olsen’s suit – which seeks damages from NBC Studios, NBC Universal, and 20th Century Fox Film Corporation, as well as Sherwin-Williams, the house paint manufacturer, and Lennox Industries, a heating, cooling and ventilation (HVAC) manufacturer which used the fibrous mineral as insulation in its products – has not yet been assigned a trial date. Olsen is currently undergoing chemotherapy.
For many television viewers, and for football fans in particular, Olsen is known as a 15-year veteran of the Los Angeles Rams, where he earned a slot on 1999′s millennium list of 100 Greatest Football Players.
Olsen also played for the St. Louis Rams as a defensive lineman, earning a slot in the Football Hall of Fame, and for the Utah State Aggies, which intends to rename the Romney Stadium playing surface after what Utah State University President Stan Albrecht called “arguably the greatest football player in school history”, referring to Olsen.
Olsen, who currently lives in Park City, is seeking damages in an unspecified amount, and was unable to attend the Sunday game announcing the renaming honor due to the state of his health. His son, Nathan, attended instead. The dedication comes almost exactly 50 years after Olsen led the Utah State team to a pair of bowl games. His jersey, No. 71, was retired several decades ago.
Olsen finished his football career and moved into acting and broadcasting, playing roles in television series like Little House, Father Murphy and Aaron’s Way. He was also a television spokesperson for FTD Florists.
Sources: TMZ, TV Squad, Deseret News