Mesothelioma: long lasting and hard to detect

Imagine having symptoms for the common cold — coughing, wheezing, feeling down and out. The symptoms go on for a while until, finally, you just can’t take it anymore.

You suck it up and go to the doctor.

The doctor sees what you see, tells you what you already know — you have a cold, and prescribes medicine to alleviate common cold symptoms before sending you home.

What if you were both wrong?

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the lining of the organs that most commonly appears in or on the lungs because of the inhalation of asbestos, according to Emily Walsh, director of community outreach for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. The three types of mesothelioma are pleural, which affects the lining of the lung; peritoneal, which affects the liner covering abdominal organs; and pericardial, which affects the lining of the heart.

Currently, the only way to accurately diagnose mesothelioma patients is to perform a biopsy, Walsh said.

“It’s so tragic. Symptoms present in very general, common ways so it gets misdiagnosed,” she said. “It usually gets (properly) diagnosed in later stages, and it’s a very aggressive cancer.”

According to the Pleural Mesothelioma Center, “Asbestos refers to a group of six types of naturally occurring minerals. Asbestos minerals are made up of fine, durable fibers and are resistant to heat, fire and many chemicals.”

Asbestos is used in a wide variety of applications, from fire-resistant clothing to crock pots, Walsh said. It still is heavily used in construction — a pipe can be wrapped in asbestos because of its durability and heat resistance. Asbestos also is used widely in drywall, popcorn ceiling, 9×9 tiles and more.

Further, the fiberous substance is largely used in imported construction materials. Automotive parts such as

brake pads and other parts that encounter a lot of heat also may use asbestos, she added.

“Asbestos is unfortunately thought of as a problem of the past, but it’s not. It’s actually still legal to use,” Walsh said.

She said the substance isn’t considered very dangerous when it’s enclosed, but when it becomes airborn, its microscopic fibers can be inhaled and will stick inside the body, potentially causing irritation and tumor growth.

Symptoms of exposure to asbestos can take many years to appear. The latency period for mesothelioma can take decades, Walsh said.

“Mesothelioma is a rare cancer, but it has a very long latency period,” she said. “It can take 10 to 50 years for symptoms to develop, so awareness is really vital.”

The Mesothelioma Center lists three primary treatments doctors offer to malignant mesothelioma patients: surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Treatment received depends on the diagnosis, state and type of cancer and the patient’s overall health.

Because asbestos is so widely used, Walsh stressed that the substance poses a health threat near and far.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find an area in the United States that is not affected by asbestos in some fashion,” she said.