mesotheliomaYou might not know what mesothelioma is. Maybe you’ve seen it on those commercials asking if you or a loved one has ever been exposed to asbestos. But it’s much more complex than that. Though it’s a rare cancer–only 3,000 new cases are diagnosed in the United States annually–it deserves much more attention than it receives.

Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a natural mineral that humans have been using for thousands of years because of its fire resistant qualities. Asbestos was used widely in construction, military vessels, commercial jobsites, and even various products within your own home. By the 1960s, researchers found that asbestos was causing a variety of health problems. Today, use of the mineral is restricted as it has been labeled as a known human carcinogen. However, unlike over 60 other countries, the United States has yet to ban this toxin.

When disturbed, the microscopic asbestos fibers can easily be inhaled undetected. The fibers then cling to the respiratory system, though symptoms won’t show for quite some time. Mesothelioma has a long latency period, anywhere from 10 to 50 years, and usually remains undetected until the patient is already in a late, harder to treat stage. Mesothelioma is broken into four stages, with stage 1 being the earliest in development with hard to notice symptoms. By stage 4, however, the cancer is usually considered terminal. Due to the long latency period, people between the ages of 50 and 70 are the most likely to be diagnosed. While there are only 3,000 new cases each year, we also see about 2,500 deaths caused by mesothelioma annually.

There are different types of mesothelioma based on where the cancer develops. Pleural mesothelioma develops in the lining of the lungs, peritoneal originates in the abdomen, and pericardial–the least common–develops in the lining of the heart cavity. Regardless of the type of mesothelioma diagnosed, the prognosis is typically extremely poor. Most patients are told they have 12 to 24 months to live.

There is no cure for mesothelioma. Patients can better their prognoses through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment. Many patients are also looking to get involved with clinical trials in the hopes of improving their prognosis.

Mesothelioma’s only known cause is exposure to asbestos. Asbestos can also contribute to many other serious health issues, like asbestosis, pleural effusion and lung cancer. The best way to prevent these diagnoses is to be aware. Asbestos isn’t harmful until it’s been disturbed. Professionals should always be called to handle any asbestos in your home. If you think you might have been exposed, keep a dialogue with your doctor about any symptoms you’re experiencing. Early detection can definitely improve prognosis and treatment options available. Until asbestos is finally banned, continued education and awareness is key to preventing this aggressive cancer.

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