Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer most often caused by a prolonged, occupational exposure to asbestos, and it is rarely diagnosed before the age of 60. It strikes seniors in disproportionate numbers, partly because symptoms don’t appear until 20 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos. The cancer has one of the longest latency periods, making it difficult to diagnose in the early stages.
An estimated 3,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma annually in the United States, often turning a well-planned retirement into chaos for a patient and family.
Although there is no definitive cure, recent therapeutic advances are extending lives significantly, creating hope for long-term survivors and lessening the gloom-and-doom attitude that previously accompanied a diagnosis. Instead of the past prognosis of six to 18 months to live, some patients today are surviving five or more years after reaching a mesothelioma specialty center that uses a multidisciplinary approach to treatment.
While still viewed as an occupational disease from working in shipbuilding, construction, manufacturing and military careers, there also are cases tied to secondhand exposure from asbestos in older homes and businesses, and even from work clothes that come into contact with asbestos and then are brought into the home. If you have ever worked with asbestos, tell your doctor and suggest a chest X-ray that could reveal further clues.
Early symptoms, such as a dry hacking cough, shortness of breath, and intermittent chest pain often mirror those of less serious respiratory problems, making it difficult to diagnose the cancer when it is most treatable.
For those diagnosed, there are ways of coping with the illness and giving yourself a better chance for long-term survival. Here are a few:
- Find a mesothelioma specialty center. Many medical professionals have never seen this rare cancer. Even many oncologists don’t understand its intricacies or the latest therapies used to combat it. This isn’t lung cancer.
- Explore clinical trials. Cutting-edge therapies for a rare cancer can often only be found in clinical trials while they are awaiting approval from the FDA. The newest immunotherapy treatments, many still in clinical trials, are getting great results in other cancers, too. Talk to your doctor about this.
- Take an active role in your treatment. Talk to your doctor about treatment options. Ask questions. Get answers. Because many doctors don’t fully understand this cancer, you will need to be your own health advocate.
- Explore complementary or alternative therapies that go beyond mainstream medicine. Talk to you doctor about them. Holistic medicine, which treats the full person, not just the disease, can help.
- Join a support group specifically for mesothelioma. For both patients and caregivers, talking with others dealing with the same issues can be helpful — emotionally and physically. It can reduce the feeling of isolation some families experience. There are support groups that meet online and over the phone each month to discuss various topics.
- Stay engaged and active. Don’t try to do this alone; accept help from others and keep positive people around you. Raise awareness to a disease that most people don’t understand.
It’s not easy for patients and families to come to grips with any type of cancer, including such a relatively rare one. We hope this has helped educate you on this disease and inspired you find the top specialists for mesothelioma— wherever you live.
The Pleural Mesothelioma Center is an informational source for mesothelioma patients and families.