A lifelong Chicagoan, John Cooney says he was well aware of the impact the University of Chicago has had in the city, country, and even the world when he joined the University of Chicago Medical Center Board of Trustees in July 2016. As a plaintiffs’ attorney specializing in mesothelioma litigation, Cooney sees his trusteeship as an intersection between his life’s work and the aspirations he has for his clients, whose experiences have made him an advocate for medical research and funding.
In his mesothelioma practice, Cooney scores wins in the courtroom on behalf of his clients, but he knows that every one of them will ultimately lose their fight with the disease.
Mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelial tissue, most commonly affecting the lungs, which today has a poor prognosis and no cure. With current treatment, 90 percent of mesothelioma patients succumb to the disease within one year. Its cause is exposure to asbestos, a class of mineral fibers widely used in twentieth-century manufacturing that was easily breathed into the lungs. Asbestos was especially common in vehicle brake manufacturing, building insulation, and Navy shipbuilding, where it was used to make ships more fire resistant.
“Mesothelioma is a word that most people only vaguely recognize. It is not a disease that is typically well known in most communities,” says Cooney. “But it is a very grim cancer that primarily affects working people and it has confounded researchers for years.”
Where Cooney gains a sense of optimism for his clients and would-be clients is at the University of Chicago Medicine. His firm, Cooney & Conway, has given $1 million to support the work of Hedy Lee Kindler, MD, and her team at the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center, which is one of the largest mesothelioma research and treatment programs in the U.S., drawing patients from throughout the country. Kindler is currently leading seven mesothelioma clinical trials to speed the development of new treatments.
“I’m a lawyer who works for people who have very desperate outcomes and some of the best hope they’ve ever gotten is from this institution,” says Cooney. “Why wouldn’t I help this institution, which is helping my clients – people I’ve come to know, people I’ve come to love in some cases? This is the only break they have.”
Cooney hopes to see an increase in resources to find a cure for mesothelioma, a need that is not waning despite the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency identified the dangers of asbestos and restricted its use in related products and materials in the 1970s. A March 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that people under the age of 35 are still developing and dying from asbestos-related disease. Overall, approximately 2,800 people die every year from mesothelioma.
Cooney sees asbestos exposure as an unmitigated occupational disaster. “It affects U.S. servicemen and working families who didn’t do anything like smoke cigarettes or abuse their health. All they did was get up in the morning and go to work every day and breathe.”
Having a leading center for research and treatment in the same city as his mesothelioma law practice is a coincidence that Cooney feels is providential. It’s another intersection of his professional work and personal aspirations that allows him to best serve the needs of his clients.
While he has lost the men and women he has represented to the disease, Cooney’s wish is that “sometime in my lifetime, I will know someone with mesothelioma who will outlive me.”