When he woke up coughing after a nap in summer 2005, he knew something wasn’t right — Roman Koronczok felt pain rip through the back of his chest every time he breathed.
Within months, Koronczok would be diagnosed with mesothelioma, a terminal disease caused by asbestos. He’d been exposed to it for decades – from adolescence throughout his career as a mechanical engineer. The prognosis is grim. Those diagnosed have only a 20 percent chance of five-year survival, and that’s if the cancer has not spread beyond the lungs.
But improbably, Koronczok appears to have beaten the disease — he’s been clear for 15 years as of this writing. And if you ask him, he’ll say he did so with the help of more than medicine. “I always believed in brain power,” he says. “And I felt that would be very helpful in my self-healing.”
“Brain power” had elevated Koronczok from a childhood of upheaval and loss to a long and successful career with multiple transnational companies in Texas — first as a draftsman, then as a piping designer and engineer.
He believed his employers put a priority on safety. Workers were outfitted with respirators and eye goggles, and Koronczok felt well cared for. But never once, he said, was he warned about asbestos.
“I had a job to do, and I did it,” he says.
A Texas-tough kind of guy
Koronczok, now 83, is stoic and cerebral, a good-natured do-it-yourselfer with thick brows and narrow-set eyes.
“He’s a Texas-tough kind of guy,” says attorney Andrew Waters of Los Angeles’ Waters Kraus and Paul, who would take on Koronczok’s case against his former employers. “When I met him, he was more concerned about how he was inconveniencing others than what he was going through.”
Once diagnosed, Koronczok realized his discomfort began earlier. A throb in the back of his chest sometimes made him wheezy. He just worked through it —he was a hardy horse of a man, the kind that jogged almost daily.
That day in 2005 was different. While cleaning an air-conditioning unit at home, he became worn out quickly, his breathing labored. He needed to lie down. By the time he stirred again, he was hacking, the pain sharp as a javelin.
He said to Pearl, his wife of 48 years: “I’ve got something wrong with me.”
A lurking, invisible danger
The year: 1952. Koronczok recalls his dad’s heavy, high-top steel-toed boots, the leather caked with grayish material accumulated at the industrial plant where he worked in Port Lavaca, two hours southwest of Houston.
He’d barely started high school when he and his older brother and sister moved to the area to live with their divorced father, a powerfully built man who’d come home from work worn out and covered in dirt-soiled clothes.
Koronczok counted cleaning his dad’s work clothes among his chores, starting with those boots: He’d smack them together – thwump! thwump! – sending small clouds of dust flying, then scrub them with a saddle-soaped rag before rubbing them with Vaseline to keep them pliable.
Koronczok didn’t know it at the time, but his exposure to asbestos had already begun. His father’s workplace, he would later learn, “had a lot of asbestos in their operations, a lot of insulation for the products they made.” That asbestos came home on his father’s shoes and clothes. “I washed his clothes in the same washing machine as our clothes,” he remembers.
A little more than a year later, his dad died on a wet morning when his pickup skidded off a road into a culvert. Koronczok’s older brother took their dad’s job at the plant, and started coming home in clothes soiled by the same materials.
Things started to look up in Koronczok’s senior year when he met Pearl, two years behind him. He’d had his eye on her for a while. Then one day, while standing on a street corner watching the town’s fall parade, he spotted her approaching atop a float in a cowgirl outfit, waving at the crowd.
He waved at her. She waved back. And he made up his mind to ask her out that night. She said yes.
They had a great time at the fair, riding the Ferris wheel and marveling at the circus elephants.
He told her, “I’m sure glad you waved at me.”
She said, “ I didn’t even know you were there.”
They married a few years later, about the time Koronczok transferred from Victoria College to study mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. In 1960, the plant where his father and brother worked hired him as a draftsman. Over the next several decades, he climbed the ranks of pipe designing and engineering jobs with various industrial companies.
As a lead engineer focused on piping, he inspected facilities where asbestos-lined steel containers held molten chemicals and where asbestos-insulated pipes, compressors and valves were buffed, cut or demolished, releasing hazardous fibers into the air.
For decades, manufacturers in the U.S. relied on asbestos’ hardy heat-resistant and fire-retardant properties, using it in ships, building pipes and ceiling tiles. “It was pretty common,” Koronczok says. “It’s in sheetrock. Brake shoes. A lot of electrical devices were made out of asbestos, because it withstood heat.”
Once asbestos’ hazardous effects on health — terminal lung cancer, chronic respiratory conditions, mesothelioma — became public, consumers and government agencies united to attempt to phase out use of the material.
“There were so many places prior to the mid-70s where asbestos was present,” Koronczok says. “There were no warnings. I didn’t know that working with asbestos was dangerous until it was too late.”
According to a U.S. Geological Survey’s 2020 commodities report, U.S. consumption of asbestos minerals has fallen from a record high of 803,000 metric tons in 1973 to an average 550 metric tons in recent years.
However, the U.S. stopped short of enforcing the complete ban found in most western nations in favor of asbestos regulation. The material is still used in roofing, gaskets, brake pads, and welder’s aprons and can be found in products like crayons, talcum powder and makeup. Asbestos-caused diseases still kill almost 40,000 Americans a year.
Determined to fight
During his first doctor visit in 2005, x-rays showed that Koronczok, by then 68, had two tumors on his right lung. Wanting a second opinion, he visited Dr. Ara Vaporciyan at the University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where an additional surgical biopsy confirmed the diagnosis: mesothelioma, something Koronczok knew virtually nothing about.
“He said it was a rare disease generally caused by asbestos,” he remembers. Immediately, Koronczok’s brain went to work, trying to figure out how it could have happened.
The only known cause of mesothelioma, a cancer of tissue-lining that most commonly affects the lungs, is asbestos. Asbestos exposure can also cause other lung cancers and respiratory issues. According to the American Cancer Society, those exposed at an early age and over a long period are at higher risk. These diseases usually develop 20 to 50 years after exposure.
Vaporciyan, the center’s chair of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery, told Koronczok that extensive surgery would be required to gauge the cancer’s spread. Specifically, he said, he would probably have to cut through Koronczok’s back and ribs to extract the cancer.
Nope, Koronczok didn’t want that. “What if I just lived with it?” he asked.
The reply was not encouraging.
“He told me, very honestly, that I wouldn’t live long. Maybe 11 months.”
Koronczok became despondent and angry. “I didn’t know where to turn,” he said. “I felt lost.”
He’d officially retired six years earlier, but had stayed busy as a consultant and expert witness. He’d always been healthy, and proud of it; he’d planned to work until he was 75. People would ask him, “How are you?” And he’d crow, “I’m great.” And now, he suddenly knew how foolish those pronouncements had been, because the disease had been quietly taking root inside him all along.
He reluctantly opted for surgery.
Fortunately, during the procedure, Dr. Vaporciyan was able to wedge his ribs apart just enough to slip his hands in to remove what cancer he could without causing lasting damage. A period of recuperation would follow, and additional x-rays, CT scans, blood tests, pain medication, oxygen therapy and chemotherapy.
Whether the cancer had spread further remained a mystery. They would have to wait and see.
As he recovered, Koronczok had time to consider not just his own fate but that of his loved ones. He felt betrayed by his body, wracked by the months of midnight chemo sessions to which Pearl dutifully drove him.
Laid up and incapacitated, he could no longer jog with his grandson, or take trips with Pearl, or see his granddaughter perform in the school play. As mounting medical expenses ate away at the family’s savings and with his future uncertain, he worried: what would his family do without the nest egg he’d built?
He started to feel not like a husband or a grandfather, but a burden. And he was afraid.
“But,” he said, “I was determined to fight.”
He knew he’d been lucky to get Dr. Vaporciyan, who “did his darnedest to do everything possible to get rid of the cancer.” He called the surgeon “the best doctor I’ve ever known.”
A man of deep Roman Catholic faith, Koronczok felt that beating the disease and the pain would take more than medicine. And he believed God had given him a very powerful weapon: his mind.
Project analysis was what he relied on as an engineer. Everything demanded a plan to be successful. “I said to myself, that’s what I’m gonna do,” he says. “I’m gonna make a plan and then follow that plan, and it’s got to work.”
He stopped taking his prescribed oxycodone, committing to mentally conquering the pain and clearing his mind enough to analyze the situation.
Then he worked out the problem in his head, devising a three-pronged attack. He penned a three-page list of pronouncements spelling out a faith-focused state of being that he would make real. They weren’t things he wanted to accomplish; they were being accomplished as he lived.
He called them his “life’s prophecies.”
“My mind is made up,” read one. “I am healed because I as well as many other good people have prayed for me. We asked for healing and God said, ‘It shall be given unto you.’ ”
Read another: “I am self confident and have faith in myself. I can do anything that is thrown at me. I just have to face it head on and whip it.”
In addition to his physical health, Koronczok’s plan involved seeking emotional, spiritual and social support from those closest to him. Instead of worrying about how this disease was stealing the savings he built for his family, he developed a plan to reach financial stability. By now he knew that his disease could have been prevented, and he was angry. He should have been warned.
“And that,” he says, “is where the attorneys came in.”
“I wanted my day in court”
Andrew Waters felt Koronczok had a strong case. And while the longtime personal-injury litigator recalls his client being pretty upbeat despite having just finished chemotherapy in the spring of 2006, he still felt a sense of urgency, given the prognosis. He wanted to get the case to trial as soon as possible.
Koronczok delivered his deposition in a conference room of a Houston law firm. Along with Waters, lawyers representing 15 companies for which he’d either worked or who’d had a hand in producing asbestos-lined equipment were also there to pepper him with questions.
“I wanted my day in court,” he said. “I was looking forward to it.”
But days before trial, the companies instead agreed to settle. For Koronczok, it was enough. He felt vindicated and, more importantly for him and his family, financially secure again.
“You’ve got to have faith.”
By the time two years passed, Koronczok had begun enjoying activities with his family again. Somehow, three years passed, and then four, and Koronczok was still there. He’s 83 now and active. Not taking any medications, he’ll have you know. He’s back to working outside, trimming the trees and so on.
“I have a wire circular loop in my back next to my lung that was placed there as a target to identify the area where these cancerous tumors were for any future CT scans [… It] still bothers me when I work out,” he says. “But I have two sons, grandchildren and great-grandkids that I can enjoy, and a vacation home on the Bayfront where I go to relax and fish.”
He and Pearl live in a small town west of Houston, and have two adult sons, two grandchildren and three great-grandkids. They’ll mark their 63rd anniversary this summer.
“It’s clear to me that he’s really enjoying his life,” Waters says. “I don’t have an explanation for how he, out of the thousands who get this disease, managed to make it this length of time. He’s such a rare example of a success. It is absolutely an inspiration. Someone like him can give other people hope.”
At first Koronczok’s post-treatment screenings were every three months; then, as time went on, every six. By 2012 he was only going back once a year. His against-the-odds success has granted him minor celebrity at the cancer center. This year, 14 years later, when most surgeons would have permanently moved on, Dr. Vaporciyan went out of his way to seek out Koronczok during his last routine checkup.
“He came in there all excited, and I was, too – just so glad to see the doctor who saved my life,” Koronczok says.
The doctor told him that he didn’t see the point of having him come in anymore.
That’s about as clean a bill of health as Koronczok could ask for. And while he’s grateful to his doctors, attorneys and caregivers, he says he’s most grateful to God and the “prophecies” he set down for himself. He periodically reviews them to reinforce his psyche.
“God gave me this body,” he says. “He gave me this mind. The mind is the strongest part of the body. You’ve got to have faith, and hope, and a strong mindset. And He gave me those things.”