The following is a guest post from the Pleural Mesothelioma Center, which serves to provide information for mesothelioma patients and their loved ones.
Malignant mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer caused almost exclusively by prolonged, occupational exposure to asbestos, and it presents unique and difficult challenges for patients and their families.
Unlike breast, prostate, lung or other more common cancers, mesothelioma remains a mystery to the medical profession, including many oncologists who rarely treat it or even see it. Fewer than 3,000 new cases are diagnosed annually in the United States.
Seniors are diagnosed the most, tragically turning a well-planned retirement into an unexpected nightmare. The average age at diagnosis is 70. Rarely is anyone diagnosed before 60. A family is often floored at the news of mesothelioma striking a loved one. The latency period between asbestos exposure and diagnosis can be anywhere from 20-50 years.
The long-before cause is often stunning. The unknowing inhalation or ingestion of microscopic asbestos fibers at work in your 20s and 30s could cause mesothelioma cancer in your 60s and 70s. Those fibers become lodged in the thin membrane surrounding the lungs or stomach and cause inflammation that slowly causes scarring, which eventually can lead to cancer.
The good news is that while there is no definitive cure, researchers are working on therapeutic advances.
Some seniors are living three, four, five and more years after being diagnosed. Many are living better and longer lives than ever. The gloom and doom of the past is no longer the norm at a specialty center, where a personalized, multidisciplinary approach to treatment is sometimes possible.
Patients with advanced disease – and their families – can be overwhelmed by the disease, needing complete caregiver services.
Diagnosis and Treating the Illness
The key to beating it is an early diagnosis when the cancer is most treatable. Too often the diagnosis comes late when the cancer already has metastasized and effective treatments are limited.
Early symptoms – a dry hacking cough, tightness in the chest, and shortness of breath – often mirror those of less serious problems, and they are dismissed. If you worked with asbestos years ago and have those symptoms today, tell your doctor and ask for a chest X-ray to start the process.
Even after a diagnosis, too many doctors and oncologists are not well versed in the latest treatment approach and patients fall into a nihilistic trap. It is a cancer most doctors rarely see and hardly understand. It’s critical to find a specialist who sees it often, and who knows the intricacies of the disease and the latest methods of treating it.
“A lot of people are told it’s a fatal disease, there’s nothing you can do, and they just give up,” says thoracic surgeon and mesothelioma specialist Dr. Abraham Lebenthal at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “But the fact is, there are specialized therapies out there today that work for many people.”
The standard of care treatment includes surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. In recent years, the surgery has become more refined, the chemotherapy more tolerable and the radiation more precise. Treatment options today also include clinical trials, new immunotherapy drugs and innovative gene therapy that all are showing success with mesothelioma patients.
Mesothelioma is no longer the death sentence it once was. Medical science is moving it toward becoming a chronic disease that can be managed for many years for more and more patients.
Patient Advocates at the Pleural Mesothelioma Center can help find you a mesothelioma specialty center. They also can help answer any questions you may have about the disease.
Tim Povtak is a content writer for the Pleural Mesothelioma Center, an informational source for mesothelioma patients and families.