Mesothelioma - Catch It Early to Avoid Big Trouble

Mesothelioma is a relatively rare form of cancer where cancerous cells develop in the mesothelium -- a protective sac that covers most of the body's internal organs. Like most cancers, early detection of mesothelioma greatly increases the chances of beating the disease.
But early detection is more difficult with mesothelioma because it has a long dormancy period of 30 or 40 years in which the cancer remains fairly inactive and causes very few symptoms. When the disease passes into its active phase it rapidly spreads to the internal organs such as the lungs, heart and abdominal organs. In its active phase it is very difficult to treat successfully because it develops and spreads so quickly.
Causes of mesothelioma
Mesothelioma was barely in the public eye until a few years ago. It has a very specific cause -- exposure to asbestos. And the dangers of asbestos exposure were not widely acknowledged until the 1970s and 80s when its serious health implications could no longer be ignored.
As often happens in cases involving commercial products with harmful side effects, there was tremendous resistance to acknowledging its dangers. In the case of asbestos, it was a product that had some very important properties that made it ideal for insulation applications.
During the first half of the previous century, right up until the mid 1970s asbestos was the default material used to retard heat transfer in buildings, machines, heavy equipment, and a broad range of commercial applications. Because it was plentiful and inexpensive to mine, asbestos was widely used in building products such as home insulation, floor, ceiling and roof tiles. It was also used in commonly found commercial products such as brake linings and pipe insulation.
This meant that millions of people were coming in contact with asbestos on a daily basis. And since the effects of exposure to asbestos fibre often do not become apparent for 30 or 40 years after prolonged exposure, there often appeared to be no immediate health risk.
This was especially important in the case of workers who mined and processed asbestos. Although workers were regularly getting sick and often had premature, painful deaths, the long period of dormancy of mesothelioma made it difficult to make the connection to asbestos.
Even short term asbestos exposure will cause mesothelioma
Generally, the probability of developing this form of cancer is directly related to the length of time you are exposed to asbestos. The health risk also increases with the intensity of the exposure to asbestos.
However, an exposure of as little as one or two months can result in mesothelioma 30 or 40 years later. At the age of 48, Canadian Member of Parliament Chuck Strahl, was recently diagnosed with mesothelioma and traces the cause back to changing brake pads on logging equipment after he graduated from high school. Strahl's case is a good example of the fact that Mesothelioma has a latency period of anywhere from 20 to 50 years. Like thousands of others he developed the disease long after his exposure to asbestos.
Symptoms of mesothelioma
Because of its long dormancy period, mesothelioma is often not detected until it enters its active, aggressive stage. Pleural mesothelioma - cancer of the lung lining - causes shortness of breath or chronic coughing. Unfortunately these symptoms can easily be mistaken for allergies or a common cold.
In fact pleural mesothelioma is often discovered by accident when patients think they have one of these more common illnesses. Other symptoms of pleural mesothelioma may include chest pain, chronic coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, wheezing, hoarseness, weight loss, or blood in the phlegm from the lungs when coughing.
Peritoneal mesothelioma affects the lining around the stomach and intestines and is usually just as dangerous. Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include pain or swelling in the abdomen, weight loss, bowel obstruction, anemia, and fever.
Treatment of mesothelioma
Unfortunately, by the time most infected people become aware they have mesothelioma it has ceased being dormant and becomes extremely aggressive. Once it is no longer dormant, this type of cancer can travel quickly, and it becomes almost impossible to stop.
While there are treatments that are available in order to keep the patient comfortable, there is currently no cure for mesothelioma, and as many as 75% of those who develop the disease will lose their life within one year. The remainder may last for up to an additional six months.
Among the treatments that are used in order to reduce the effects of the disease are oxygen, postural drainage and pain killers. A wide range of treatment approaches are being tested, ranging from attempts to fortify the body's natural immune system to gene therapy which tries to attack the problem at the DNA level. Homeopathy, herbs and acupuncture are also used. But none have yet been shown to be very effective once the disease reaches the aggressive stage.
Given the generally poor prognosis for people who do not catch the disease in time, early detection is the best defence against mesothelioma. If you have worked in an industry such as construction or suspect that you may have been exposed to asbestos, be alert for symptoms and contact your doctor immediately. Like all forms of cancer, detecting mesothelioma at the earliest stage possible greatly increases your chances for survival.
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