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Mesothelioma: A Guide to Recognition, Treatment and Survival

Unlike other forms of cancer, Mesothelioma remains a largely misunderstood condition. Although patients develop this condition from outside pollutants, like more commonly-identified forms of cancer, its cause is largely hidden. Asbestos, the natural insulator that causes this cancer, was used heavily in construction until it was finally banned in the U.S. in the 1970’s. However, because of its popularity of and effectiveness, many homes built prior to this ban contain this material. Worse still, as the material is damaged or degrades, it gets released into the air into small particles where it can be introduced into the body. Homeowners living with this deteriorating material might literally inhale this product for decades without realizing the danger they are in.


CT scan of a patient with mesothelioma

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Mesothelioma also differs from other diseases because it lies dormant for 20 to 50 years, making it a devastating surprise when it does finally manifests. Furthermore, direct contact with asbestos isn’t even required to develop the condition, as many spouses and families of laborers discovered. Americans working in naval shipyards during the use of this material are now frequent victims of the disease, as well as their families. These workers often brought the carcinogenic dust home on their clothes and hair, exposing those living in their homes to the material second hand. For that reason, it remains important for individuals working in older buildings to ensure they protect themselves from the dangers that might be lurking in older insulation and tiles.

Even after mesothelioma symptoms do arise, many patients often ignore them because they mimic other ailments and develop slowly. The most common type of this disease, pleural mesothelioma, leaves patients with symptoms like persistent coughing, chest pains, shortness of breath and fatigue.  Those with peritoneal mesothelioma, which begins in the lining surrounding the stomach, may experience weight loss and nausea, while those with pericardial mesothelioma might experience irregular heartbeats and chest pain. Although these symptoms can appear commonplace, it remains important for individuals to address any of these symptoms, especially if they might have been exposed to asbestos in the past.

Although currently difficult to locate, new tests, including advanced imaging and blood scans, are refined everyday which enable doctors to quickly identify this disease. Like most illnesses, the quicker doctors identify mesothelioma, the more treatment options remain and the more effective they will be. In its early stages, surgery to remove tumors might be used, as well as radiation or chemotherapy to kill remaining cells. However, the long latency period of this disease in combination with the delayed diagnosis that often accompanies it contributes to a short survival rate. Just 10% of patients with this disease live past five years of their initial diagnosis. Therefore, many treatments of mesothelioma include palliative care rather than procedures meant to cure the condition.

Even though diagnosis with this disease usually includes a poor prognosis, positivity remains an important tool to fighting this illness and prolonging one’s life. Like all diseases, attitude plays an immense role in the successful acceptance of this disease as these patients are more motivated to learn about their condition and adopt strict regimens to overcome their diagnosis. Paul Kraus, a man diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 1997, is alive today with a good quality of life, even after doctors originally diagnosed him with less than a year to live. Kraus reacted the way all cancer patients should when confronted with a difficult diagnosis: he learned all he could about the disease, spoke with several doctors about his options and developed a strict plan of action to take against his condition. Kraus’ attitude exemplifies everything cancer patients should strive for in their treatment of a difficult disease and he should be held as a model of successful treatment.

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