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Mesothelioma survivor Daniel McCarthy has better things to do than sit at home lamenting his future with pleural mesothelioma cancer. The sky is still his limit.
The free-spirited McCarthy recently piloted a Boeing 737 – virtually – touching down at Paro International Airport in the South Asian country of Bhutan on arguably the most dangerous major aircraft landing strip in the world. His performance was flawless.
Earlier this month, he expertly captained flights to Cork, Ireland; Anchorage, Alaska; Kangerlussuaq, Greenland; and Hong Kong.
At age 82, he is traveling the world once again – in his own unique way – and loving every minute of it.
McCarthy does it through Global Flight Adventures, a state-of-the-art flight simulation center near his home in Boston. It puts him right in the flight deck where every gauge, switch, knob and lever works just like the real aircraft. The multiprojector vision system provides an unbelievably realistic simulation, from takeoff to touch down.
As a former pilot, McCarthy is virtually back on the job, and beaming about it, even after a cancer setback and the first round of his latest treatment.
“I can’t pilot anymore in real life because of my medical condition, but it’s a real rush for me with this simulator,” McCarthy told The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com. “You don’t ever leave the ground, but it’s as real as you can get. This is the kind of thing that keeps me going, keeps my brain running. And it keeps me alive.”
McCarthy was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, a rare cancer with no cure, in 2017. He underwent aggressive surgery performed by specialist Dr. Abraham Lebenthal at the Boston VA Hospital.
He nearly died in the operating room. His recovery was brutal and slow. And the cancer with no cure has returned. Yet McCarthy has remained surprisingly upbeat.
“I think we know there’s not going to be a real happy ending here. With this disease, you don’t know when the next shoe is going to drop on your head,” he said. “So, I just go from day to day, and don’t worry about it. If you worry about dying, you’re in deep [crap]. I used to fly airplanes, and I almost died a few times already.”
McCarthy grew up in Ireland. He remembers vividly almost dying at age 6 when – unable to swim – he fell out of a boat wearing his Sunday church clothes and quickly sunk to the bottom of the river. He was saved only because his two young friends were good swimmers and quick thinkers.
“I went down quickly, blacked out, but never saw any bright lights or golden gates,” he said. “They resuscitated me, brought me back to life. We went home and never told my mom what happened. So, I knew at a young age what dying was.”
McCarthy immigrated to the U.S. at age 21. He started work as a carpenter in Boston before enlisting in the Army, where he spent the next three years, much of it with the 4th Armored Division in Germany.
He worked as an aircraft mechanic, then went to flight school and became a private commuter airline pilot, a life that he loved. Always looking for another adventure, McCarthy went back to school in middle age and became a registered nurse. He spent several years in this career, dedicating his life to helping others.
At least one of his professional passions led to asbestos exposure, which resulted in his mesothelioma diagnosis many years later, hitting him in retirement.
“My wife Barbara, who is nurse, we were walking on a beach at Martha’s Vineyard one day, and she said I sounded short of breath, and I thought no way, that’s impossible,” McCarthy said. “I work out every day, go to the gym, do the treadmill. She convinced me, though, to see a doctor, and it basically saved my life.”
After multiple tests, McCarthy was diagnosed in the relatively early stages of pleural mesothelioma, making surgery a viable option.
“It was shock, a big shock to me when I heard the diagnosis. I didn’t understand what the hell mesothelioma was, except that it can kill you in a hurry,” he said. “Dr. Lebenthal was great. He pulls no punches. He saved me, but the actual surgery was terrible. Surgery beat the hell out of me. My head swelled up like a cartoon balloon, like I was a rabbit with myxomatosis.”
Surgery was followed by chemotherapy and radiation, which slowed him, but didn’t stop his push to stay engaged. He walks daily today, reads considerably and writes about his adventures.
“You can’t spend your time thinking about dying, and the stuff going on inside you. Let the medical people take care of that problem,” McCarthy said. “I’d tell people, ‘Find a way to stay positive.’”
McCarthy feeds the trout in the pond near his home every morning. He gets a massage weekly. He spends considerable time at the flight simulation center.
“I’m up to my neck in busyness,” he said. “I really think that can help a mesothelioma patient survive. You can’t just sit down and die. Staying busy helps you stay healthy.”
McCarthy also believes strongly in Chinese herbs as a health product, consuming them regularly.
“I don’t know what my future holds, but I don’t sit around and worry about it anymore,” he said.
Much of October was spent recovering from pneumonia. His latest CT scan also revealed new tumor growth on his right lung, much too close to his heart.
He has also scheduled his next Boeing 737 flight – piloting a South America trip with stops in Rio de Janeiro and Valparaiso that involve two more challenging landing strips.
“I’m not afraid of dying,” McCarthy said. “When I do, I’ll meet all my old friends and just have a BS session. It will be another adventure for me. But in the meanwhile, I have a lot more places to go and things to see.”