World Cancer Day: East London teacher’s ‘bolt from blue’ fatal asbestos diagnosis

Rather than enjoying her happy retirement, and time with her beloved family, Shirley has now been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung.
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“When you’re teaching, you just get on with the job,” the words of former home economics teacher, Shirley Falkenau, 75.

Working at Bowbrook Girls School, in Tower Hamlets, in the late 1960s, Shirley fondly recalls her days teaching cooking and sewing in classrooms in Victorian buildings in east London.

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After three years’ work from 1967, Shirley left her job with the Inner London Education Authority, now Tower Hamlets Council, to travel to Kathmandu, in 1970.

Shirley taught at a school in east London. Photo: SuppliedShirley taught at a school in east London. Photo: Supplied
Shirley taught at a school in east London. Photo: Supplied

Her taste for adventure sated, she returned to London in 1970, meeting her now-husband Guy, on a course that year, before the couple married in 1971, and had their son in 1976.

In 1971, Shirley and Guy moved to the north east of England, where Shirley taught housekeeping skills in schools throughout Gateshead, in Tyne and Wear, near Newcastle.

But now, rather than enjoying her happy retirement, and time with her beloved family, Shirley has now been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung.

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Often due to decades-old asbestos exposure, Shirley has been told her disease is terminal.

“My mesothelioma diagnosis came as a bolt from the blue,” she said.

Shirley began suffering with breathlessness in around March 2021, when she noticed that she could not walk as far as she used to.

She was suffering a build-up of fluid on her lung and doctors carried out a biopsy operation.

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It was after this, in July 2021, that Shirley was given her devastating diagnosis.

“Nothing can really prepare you for the shock of hearing you have terminal cancer and the disbelief and the worry about what the future holds,” she confessed.

Shirley is now seeking answers about her diagnosis. Photo: SuppliedShirley is now seeking answers about her diagnosis. Photo: Supplied
Shirley is now seeking answers about her diagnosis. Photo: Supplied

As the shock wore off, Shirley wanted to find out how she had contracted the disease.

“I struggled to think where I could’ve encountered asbestos at first,” she said.

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But over time, she recalled her years in east London, first at Bowbrook Upper School on Roman Road, and then in the lower school on Bow Road - both old buildings.

And Shirley recalled that here, as in many of the schools she worked, the ironing boards included an asbestos plate.

She also fears the oven gloves also contained asbestos, as fibres came off them when used.

She said: “You think of things like the old pipe lagging, the ironing boards and oven gloves.

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“Looking back, I now realise that I probably would have been regularly exposed to asbestos through handling and using ironing boards in lessons.”

Now, Shirley is appealing to her former colleagues in London for help regarding how she developed the disease.

After her diagnosis, she began working with law firm Irwin Mitchell - to help her find answers.

As experts in asbestos-related disease they are investigating her exposure to the substance.

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Together with her legal team, Shirley is urging anyone who worked at Bowbrook Girls School in the late 1960s, to come forward with information about the conditions at the institution.

“I want to be strong for my family and while I can’t now change the past, I want to find out more about how this came to happen,” she said.

“If anyone out there who worked at these locations when I did could come forward, it would be a big help.

“Even small details at this stage could help a lot.”

The numbers of former teachers with asbestos-related illnesses have grown in recent years.

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A 2019 report found over 200 teachers had died from asbestos exposure in the last decade.

Shockingly, for each teacher affected, nine ex-pupils could also be expected to fall victim.

Brave Shirley added: “I don’t know what this diagnosis means for the future.

“I’m keen to find out as much as I can as soon as I can - so I can get the answers while I am still fit and able enough to do so.”

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Irwin Mitchell lawyer Emma Bell said: “Shirley is devastated by her diagnosis and what it means for her and her family.

“Many people associate asbestos with traditional industries, but its use was common in public buildings, with places such as schools, hospitals and offices containing the material.

“We’ve represented many former teachers over the years who discovered they had been exposed to asbestos in schools.

“There’s not much the doctors can do with regards to curing Shirley’s cancer. We’re determined to at least provide her with the answers she deserves.”

Anyone with information that could help Shirley, is asked to contact Stephanie Wilson on 0191 434 0731 or at [email protected].