Mesothelioma: The Rare Cancer Caused by Asbestos
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer with only 3,000 new cases annually. This number may seem relatively small, but the fact that this aggressive cancer is completely preventable makes this amount of cases daunting.
Exposure to asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, and cases will continue to be diagnosed as long as a comprehensive ban is not in place. September 26th is the 17th annual Mesothelioma Awareness Day, and a time to educate friends and family on the dangers of asbestos exposure.
Where is Asbestos Found?
This dangerous carcinogen can be found in many older homes, offices, and schools. Asbestos was used in thousands of building materials throughout the 20th century, and was sought after by many industries for its fire resistance and strength. Due to the long latency period of mesothelioma, the detrimental effects of this material weren’t seen right away until decades after exposure.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the United States put a partial ban on new asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). Both the United Kingdom and Australia have since completely banned asbestos. Although builders can no longer use ACMs, there has not been a widespread push to remove ACMs that are already in buildings. Mesothelioma cases, as well as other diseases from asbestos exposure, will continue to emerge until these materials are completely banned.
How Does Mesothelioma Occur?
Mesothelioma can occur when friable asbestos is inhaled or ingested, and become trapped in the lining of the lungs or abdomen. This happens when asbestos-containing building materials get old and begin to deteriorate.
For instance, if a leak occurred in old piping that was wrapped in old crumbling asbestos insulation, a plumber could easily be exposed if they removed the insulation without realizing it contains asbestos. The trapped asbestos can then cause tumors to form in the lungs or abdomen and pleural or peritoneal mesothelioma, respectively, may be diagnosed.
Types Of Mesothelioma
Patients suffering from pleural mesothelioma may experience shortness of breath, chest pains, and a dry cough. Tumors form as asbestos fibers scar the pleura in the lungs. This form of mesothelioma is also the most common and accounts for 80-90% of all cases diagnosed. On occasion, patients may be diagnosed with the co-occurrence of pleural plaques, pleural thickening, or asbestosis which are asbestos-related conditions.
If a patient is experiencing abdominal pain, swelling, and unexplained weight loss, peritoneal mesothelioma may be the cause. If asbestos has been ingested the fibers can cause inflammation and scarring in the abdomen where tumors can take shape.
Making up 15-20% of all mesothelioma cases, peritoneal mesothelioma is less common but just as serious. Treatments like heated chemotherapy (HIPEC) have helped to improve the grim life expectancy of only 6-12 months.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Doctors may order x-rays and blood tests, but to confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis, doctors must perform a biopsy of the affected area. Once confirmed, treatment options can be assessed. It’s pertinent to move quickly on a treatment plan, as unfortunately, the life expectancy for mesothelioma patients is only 12-21 months.
Staying Safe With A Rare Disease
With the Covid-19 pandemic, pleural mesothelioma patients in particular have had to remain vigilant to protect themselves. Debilitating to the respiratory system, patients with this cancer must be cautious as a respiratory virus like Covid-19 could be devastating.
Staying isolated has been a necessity and this year has posed challenges for mesothelioma patients. Please take the time this Mesothelioma Awareness Day to help educate those around you on the dangers of asbestos and keep patients with rare diseases in your thoughts.