Mesothelioma isn’t a cancer you hear about every day. Chances are most of us have friends and family members touched by the more common forms of cancers, such as lung or breast cancer, which are among the most prevalent in the United States. Mesothelioma, on the other hand, is much more rare, diagnosed in about 2,000 – 3,000 Americans each year. It’s most definitive cause is exposure to asbestos though an occasional case has been diagnosed where no asbestos exposure can be linked.
Nonetheless, this rare cancer is most often found in those who worked with asbestos on the job, as a DIYer, or in other circumstances beyond their control. An example of the latter is the emergency responders during the 9/11 attacks, who were exposed to massive amounts of asbestos in the debris left behind after the buildings fell.
Though uncommon, mesothelioma is, nevertheless, a brutal form of cancer. Caused by the inhalation of small, sharp asbestos fibers/dust, it attacks the mesothelium, the thin membrane that safeguards the internal organs of the body. In most cases, tumors form in the pleura, which is the part of the mesothelium that lines the lungs. About three-quarters of all cases of mesothelioma are of the pleural variety. Cancerous tumors may also occur in the peritoneum, the lining of the abdomen. This is the second-most common form of the disease, accounting for about 10-15 percent of all diagnosed cases. Lastly, a very rare but extremely serious form of the disease occurs in the pericardium, the lining of the heart.
Most of the individuals who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos during the years when its use was quite commonplace. This includes much of the 20th century. In particular, in the United States, the use of asbestos was allowed until the late 1970s, when rules were put in place to protect workers from exposure. However, the United States has never banned the mineral, unlike the more than four dozen countries in the European Union and beyond that have outlawed its use.
Though asbestos use was essentially halted more than three decades ago, because mesothelioma has a long latency period, it is still being diagnosed today. This extended latency period means that those exposed as early as the 1970s may just be learning that they have the disease. That’s because it can remain dormant in the body for up to five decades, and when symptoms finally appear, the disease is already quite advanced and, ultimately, difficult to treat.
Individuals exposed to asbestos on the job worked in a variety of different trades. Those on the list of occupations most likely to have been exposed to the toxic mineral include steel mill workers, miners, power plant employees, refinery workers, construction workers, shipbuilders, welders, insulators, auto mechanics, and machinists.
Asbestos was used in many of the products that these and other workers encountered during their daily routine. It was widely known as an excellent insulator, so it was often found wrapped around high-temperature items like pipes, electrical wires, boilers, and more. Mechanics encountered it in brake and clutch pads. Construction workers might have used asbestos-containing cement or perhaps asbestos siding, shingles, or roofing. The list is immense and many were exposed consistently, making them the most likely candidates for the disease. However, even a small amount of exposure may result in an eventual diagnosis of mesothelioma.
Individuals who were at risk for secondary exposure were the families of those who worked in professions that made rampant use of asbestos. Because they were unaware that the dust produced by asbestos could be toxic, these workers often headed home covered in asbestos debris. Once there, they’d be greeted by their children and spouses, who were then exposed to the dust. Often, victims of secondary exposure have been the women who washed their family member’s asbestos-covered clothes, shaking them out before placing them in the washing machine, allowing the fibers to circulate through the air and inhaling the toxic dust.
Ideally, early detection is the key to successfully treating mesothelioma, but because of the extended latency period, the disease is rarely detected until it has reached Stage 3 or 4. Researchers have developed a blood test that can check for the presence of biomarkers that indicate someone is a candidate for the disease. There is hope that this will help with early detection. In the meantime, however, there is no cure for mesothelioma and treatment approaches have been frustrating. Chemotherapy has extended lives of mesothelioma victims, most often by months but not years, and the prognosis is still grim despite advances in fields such as immunotherapy or gene therapy.
Those who have been exposed to asbestos in the past should know that they are potential candidates for asbestos diseases, including asbestosis and mesothelioma. Symptoms such as a cough that won’t go away, chest pain, difficulty breathing, and weight loss could be a sign of something serious. Mesothelioma symptoms often resemble those of other less-serious disease, so when being examined for something that resembles a cold or bronchitis, mention asbestos exposure to your doctor so that he/she can rule out the possibility of a cancer diagnosis.