November 7, 2020

Steve McQueen’s tragic death from asbestos cancer and his drastic bid to survive


Steve McQueen was so much more than just an actor, he was the undisputed ‘King of Cool’.

The star – real name Terrence Stephen McQueen – was a huge box office pull in the 1960s and 1970s.

As the star of The Great Escape, The Towering Inferno and The Cincinnati Kid, he was at the top of his game and officially became the highest-paid movie star in the world in 1974.

But the father-of-two’s life was tragically cut short when he was just 50 years old and he was struck down by asbestos cancer.

And despite the drastic measures he took in a bid to stay alive, nothing could save him.

At the age of 48 in 1978, Steve developed a persistent cough.



Steve was just 50 when he died

Immediately, he gave up smoking cigarettes and had antibiotic treatments in the hope of healing.

Sadly, it didn’t work. The shortness of breath he was suffering grew more pronounced and on December 2, 1979, a biopsy revealed that he had pleural mesothelioma, a cancer associated with asbestos exposure.

There it no known cure for the disease.

Steve later said that he believed that asbestos used in insulation on movie sound stages and in race drivers’ protective suits and helmets could have been part of what led to his cancer diagnosis.

However, he said he felt it was more likely that his illness was a result of exposure while removing asbestos insulation from pipes on board a troop ship while he was in the Marines.



He quit smoking after his cancer diagnosis



Steve took drastic measures, going to Mexico for alternative treatments

By February 1980, there was evidence that the cancer had spread throughout his body.

He decided to keep his illness a secret, but in March 1980, the National Enquirer published a story that he had “terminal cancer”.

Further to quitting smoking, Steve took other measures in a bid to prevent his untimely death.

In July 1980, he travelled to Mexico from his native US to have unconventional treatments after doctors back home said there was nothing they could do to prolong his life.

Steve sought treatment from orthodontist William Donald Kelley, who had developed an alternative treatment for cancer.



Steve was warned by US doctors his cancer couldn’t be cured

He was promoting a variety of therapy that used coffee enemas as well as massages, shampoos and daily injections of fluid containing live cells from cattle and sheep.

The treatments also used an anti-cancer drug that has been known to be both toxic and innefective.

It’s thought that Steve paid for his treatments in cash, handing over $40,000 per month, which today is worth around $124,000.

He stayed in Mexico having treatments for three months.

The only medical license Kelley had held was for orthodontics, but that was revoked in 1976.



Steve as Frank Bullitt in Bullitt



Steve was the highest-paid actor in the world

His methods were a tabloid sensation after it was discovered that Steve had been a patient.

As he returned to the US, Kelley publicly announced that the actor would be completely cured, but sadly that wasn’t the case at all.

The star’s condition worsened and huge tumours developed in his abdomen.

In late October 1980, Steve returned to Mexico to have a tumour that weighed around five pounds removed.

He went ahead with the operation despite warnings from US doctors that the tumour was inoperable and that his heart wouldn’t be able to take the surgery.

He checked into a small surgery under the fake name Samuel Sheppard, and doctors had no idea who he really was.



He’s left a legacy behind



Steve in The Thomas Crown Affair

Tragically, on November 7, 1980, he died of heart failure at the clinic, just 12 hours after the surgery to remove tumours from his neck and abdomen.

Despite his untimely death, Steve left behind a huge legacy.

In 2007, his estate became one of the top 10 highest earners for dead celebrities and he was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

He’s also been inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and had a documentary made about his quest to create and star in 1971 auto-racing film Le Mans.

He also became a character in Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 movie Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, when he was portrayed by Damian Lewis.





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