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Karen Peterson

Brothers in Arms - Working Nights at UCSF to Cure Mesothelioma, Spurred by a Widower's Grief and Hard-Raised Cash

Open Popup reports on the collaboration of David M. Jablons, M.D. and Jeff Peterson whose wife Karen and died from mesothelioma, a devastating disease.

Dr. David Jablons couldn't save Karen Peterson's life or even extend it. But he could give quality to whatever life she had left. That turned out to be about nine months, long enough for her twin boys to see her waterskiing on Lake Tahoe and boogie-boarding in Oceanside and laughing more than coughing. 

Jablons, chief cardiothoracic surgeon at UCSF, was the last in a line of specialists Peterson had sought out coast to coast in a 22-month battle against mesothelioma, the asbestos-induced cancer that had stuck like glue in the lining of her lungs. Of all the doctors she had seen, Jablons had been the most realistic and honest about her chances, so he was the one her husband, Jeff Peterson, called a month after she died at age 42, two days after Christmas 2002. 

Peterson met Jablons for lunch in the UCSF cafeteria, armed with settlement money from 23 lawsuits and a simple message. "I said," Peterson recalls, "I want to kick some ass here." 

That was one Jablons hadn't heard before. And he had a return message. "Translate that anger and frustration into making things better," Jablons recalls. "Jeff took the fire in his belly and said 'Fine. Let's bankroll you.' " 

In the 18 months since, Peterson and Jablons have formed one of the more unusual partnerships in Bay Area medical research. Jablons, 48, never left the streets of Manhattan until he went to Yale to pursue American literature and pre-med. Peterson, 47, never left the beaches of Aptos until he went to Cal to pursue baseball. But they are the same height and build and have the same eye color. Under laboratory light they could be mistaken for brothers, and that's what they've become. Brothers-in-arms against mesothelioma. 

Jablons is nicknamed the Boy Wonder, and Peterson is equally boyish, intense and excitable. They play off each other, flapping the UCSF crew of unflappable scientists, Biao He, Zhidong Xu and Liang You. "Being in the lab is like being in the locker room at SBC Park," Peterson says, "only there is a lot more humility and a lot less arrogance." 

The name mesothelioma comes from mesothelium, "a thin, fluid-secreting lining that lubricates things and keeps the thoracic and abdominal cavities isolated," Jablons says. The common theory behind mesothelioma is that asbestos fibers are breathed in and pass through the lungs to the lining. A fiber gets lodged inside a cell and can fester for 30 years before something - - illness, trauma, stress, an unknown risk factor -- triggers it into the runaway cell division that forms a tumor. "It flares up and boom, a year later you're dead," he says. 

The lining, normally as thin as Saran Wrap, expands as the tumor grows until it is several inches thick. The tumor blocks the lymphatic channels that drain a couple of quarts of fluid a day. The combination of the tumor and the fluid buildup smothers the lung, then starts on the heart. "They can't breathe and their lung gets compressed and that's the end of the game," Jablons says. 

Out of 1.3 million new diagnoses of cancer each year in the United States, just 3,000 are mesothelioma, and just 300 of those are women. Karen Peterson first felt it when she was 40, living in Danville and staying in shape by swimming, running or hiking every day. Her back started to bother her and she started going to bed early. Then came a cold that wouldn't go away. Thinking it was a relapse of the pleurisy she'd had when pregnant, she went in for an abdominal X-ray, and a small dark spot was noticed.

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Tags: Malignant Mesothelioma
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