“Mesothelioma” is a big and scary sounding word for a medical condition that is equally scary. Many patients who develop mesothelioma only live for months, or a few years after the initial diagnosis. But is mesothelioma something the average person should be worried about? Is it something you should monitor or proactively plan for?
The Basics of Mesothelioma
Let’s start by talking about the basic aspects of mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that develops in the lining of human organs; while mesothelioma can affect many different organs, the most common affected area is the lungs. In some patients, mesothelioma can also develop in the heart or the abdomen. This cancer gets its name from the medical term for the thin, protective lining of these organs, called the mesothelium.
The vast majority of mesothelioma cases are caused by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a natural mineral that was once used in a variety of applications across industries like construction and the military. Realistically, asbestos does have a number of advantages as a construction material; it’s resistant to flames and is highly insulated. However, asbestos is full of tiny fibers that, once inhaled or ingested, become lodged in the mesothelium. This, in turn, can cause inflammation and spur the development of cancerous cells.
Mesothelioma is a very serious and complex disease that’s hard to treat. Most patients do not live long after the initial diagnosis, though there are some treatment options that can extend your lifespan if the cancer is caught quickly enough. A variety of tactics, including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy may be used to mitigate the spread of the disease and eliminate particularly harmful growths.
Who Is at Risk for Mesothelioma?
This disease is not especially common in the United States. Each year, there are between 2,500 and 3,000 new cases. If you have not been exposed to asbestos, your risk of developing this type of cancer is minimal. In fact, asbestos is the only proven cause of mesothelioma.
Additionally, temporary or limited exposure to asbestos doesn’t increase your cancer risk by much. Instead, the people most likely to develop mesothelioma are those who were exposed to this material for long periods of time, working with it or around it for hours a day over the course of years.
Roughly 1/3 of mesothelioma cases come from people in the military, as the United States military commonly used asbestos as a building material in ships, aircraft, barracks, and on-base housing. Construction workers and other people who worked with insulation on a regular basis are also at high risk, as are electricians, pipe fitters, auto mechanics, firefighters, and shipyard workers.
Even if you have never worked in these industries, there are some situations that could put you at higher risk of developing mesothelioma. If your loved one has been a high-risk worker, there’s a chance you could have experienced secondary exposure. Residents who have lived near asbestos mines and manufacturing plants may have also had incidental environmental exposure.
If you don’t fall into any of these categories, and you feel confident that you have not been routinely exposed to this building material, you probably don’t need to worry about developing mesothelioma.
Signs and Symptoms of Mesothelioma
If you believe you’re at risk for mesothelioma, it’s a good idea to pay attention to the signs and symptoms of this disease.
Signs and symptoms vary depending on the organ affected, but many people notice effects like:
- Chest pain.If asbestos fibers worked their way into your lungs, you’ll likely experience chest pain.
- Difficulty breathing. You may also find it harder to breathe, or find yourself short of breath.
- Coughing. Coughing is also common among people with mesothelioma in the lungs.
- Weight loss. As with many cancers, unexplained weight loss is a symptom.
- General fatigue. Mesothelioma can make you feel tired all the time.
- Abnormal pain or swelling. Strange swelling or pain without cause can also be a symptom.
If you believe you’ve been exposed to asbestos, and you notice these signs and symptoms, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with a medical professional as soon as possible. Your doctor will likely order imaging tests, such as CT scans or X-rays, and arrange for a biopsy to see what your tissue samples look like under a microscope. The sooner you take action on this deadly disease, the better your prognosis will be.
Mesothelioma is a complicated disease that we’re still working diligently to better understand and treat. For now, it’s a fatal disease for the majority of people who develop it. If you limit or eliminate your exposure to asbestos, you’ll never have to worry about it, and if you proactively screen for it, you can improve your prognosis dramatically.