At the end of September, we recognized Mesothelioma Awareness Day (MAD), a day set aside to raise awareness for asbestos-related cancer and those who may be at risk. Mesothelioma is most commonly caused by exposure to asbestos, making it a very preventable cancer. As a result of the long latency period of this disease, mesothelioma generally develops later in life, affecting the elderly population.
What causes mesothelioma?
The molecular structure of asbestos causes the mineral to be highly susceptible to fragmenting and breaking apart – this quality is known as friability. As asbestos is disrupted and the particles are inhaled, they can become lodged inside the body indefinitely. As the particles settle, they cancer cells may begin to form. Mesothelioma most often affects the lining of the lungs, stomach or heart.
The illness slowly progresses through inflammation and irritation, tumor growth and several other symptoms; they include chest pain, tightness, and trouble breathing. Due to the rareness of the disease, as well as the commonality of its symptoms, it has the potential to go undetected until its later stages. Outlook for mesothelioma patients is grim, as they are generally given a life expectancy of only 12-21 months. However, the earlier that the disease is diagnosed, the better prognosis a patient can have.
Who is most likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma?
A naturally-occurring silicate mineral, asbestos was used throughout the 20th Century as a supportive property in many different applications and products. Commercially, asbestos was used in construction and infrastructure, especially in roofing, flooring, and insulation. These uses have made construction and industrial workers susceptible to exposure at work as well. Mesothelioma is the leading occupational cancer, developing years after workers may have been unknowingly exposed to asbestos on the job.
Asbestos was once used extensively in military operations – particularly within the Navy. Many ships, predominantly throughout the WWII era, were insulated with asbestos-based material. The mineral was used in many buildings built prior to 1980, making service men and women vulnerable to exposure in a variety of situations. One third of all mesothelioma cases diagnosed have occurred in veterans, so awareness of the disease and its symptoms can help for early detection and provide the best chance to fight the illness.
How can caregivers support mesothelioma patients?
Caring for a cancer patient can be challenging, especially a patient who may be dealing with a difficult prognosis. With mesothelioma patients, caregivers may find that the disease moves quickly and aggressively in the later stages. Patients typically experience chest pain, shortness of breath, and weakness from treatment or surgery. Caregivers may have to take on more labor-intensive responsibilities, and even everyday errands that require exhaustive walking. Additionally, caregivers may be responsible for other household tasks, personal hygiene, transportation and crisis preparation.
Since mesothelioma is an incurable disease with an adverse life expectancy, caregivers may also be responsible for helping with end-of-life care. Even though the process may be difficult or upsetting, alleviating a patient’s stress and understanding their wishes can be incredibly meaningful for both the patient and caretaker.
Despite the poor prognosis of mesothelioma, there is hope that raising awareness about the dangers of asbestos and signs of the disease will lead to fewer cases worldwide. Asbestos is currently regulated in the United States, but not completely banned. Understanding how asbestos can infiltrate our health and who is most susceptible to exposure can help with future prevention.