September 26 is Mesothelioma Awareness Day.
What, you may ask, is mesothelioma?
You’ve probably heard of it, though you may not know its name. It’s a cancer you can get primarily from exposure to asbestos fibers. Even though asbestos isn’t as widely used as it was in the past, people are still being diagnosed with the cancer because it has a long latency period. Between 2,500 and 3,000 new cases come into being each year.
A lot more of the victims are men because a lot more men worked in industries where asbestos exposure was, at one time, quite common. This was especially true in navy shipyards and other places where asbestos was a popular and effective insulating material. And it doesn’t burn, which made it especially valuable.
Most people are diagnosed late because they don’t realize they have the cancer. Not only does it take a long time to develop but at first its symptoms can seem like those of a common cold, with the coughing, the chest pain, the shortness of breath. When those symptoms won’t go away, the person may finally see a doctor. Or not.
If he does, and the doctor has any awareness at all, he will order some imaging scans. When those show cancer, or even hint at it, the person will be sent to a mesothelioma expert. There are such people, even though it’s a rare disease.
As yet, there is no definite cure for mesothelioma. Treatment depends on the age and general condition of the patient, and the stage of the disease. There are four stages, ranging from the first, which is localized with no further involvement of body tissues or lymph nodes, to the fourth, where it has spread throughout the body. Young patients in otherwise good health and in only an early stage of the disease, may have a chance. In later stages, or with elderly people, doctors try as much as possible to keep them comfortable. That’s about all they can do.
Treatment may involve surgery, which can entail removal of, or most of, the tumor, or even the whole lung. That will be followed up by radiation and/or chemotherapy. Ultimate survival is still rare, even though scientists are constantly working to develop more and better cures.
Although most of the victims are men, women and even children have come down with this cancer, too. Before asbestos was known to be such a killer, men would come home from work with the magnesium-silicate fibers in their clothes. These would get loose in the air that was breathed by their families. Because the cancer takes so long to develop, no one realized the danger for decades. The latency period can, at its shortest, be about ten years, but the usual developmental period is 20 to 50 years from exposure. The age at which most people are diagnosed is between 50 and 70 years.
A lung is most usually affected, causing what’s known as pleural mesothelioma. But asbestos fibers can be swallowed, too, and cause a tumor in the stomach or elsewhere in the digestive system. This is known as peritoneal mesothelioma. It can make swallowing difficult. Or it can affect the pericardium, the area around the heart.
From the time diagnosis is made, most patients survive about 10 months to a year. However, the survival rate gets better all the time. A notable survivor is Heather Von St. James, who was diagnosed at the age of 36 and has been cancer-free for eight years. Heather is happy to talk by phone to those who are diagnosed with mesothelioma or their loved ones. To find out how to get in touch with her, call the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance toll-free at 1-800-336-0086. Or e-mail them at http://www.mesothelioma.com/