What Is Mesothelioma?

There is no definitive cure for mesothelioma, the rare and aggressive cancer caused by asbestos exposure, but there is a more curative approach to treatment today.

Unlike a decade ago, hope is part of the equation. Long-term survivors have replaced the universal gloom-and-doom attitude of yesterday.

Mesothelioma hits senior citizens the hardest, and it usually strikes long after their occupational exposure to asbestos has ended, often upending those well-planned retirement years.

A better awareness to early symptoms and an earlier diagnosis — when the disease is more manageable — can lead to more success stories.

“When hope is part of the equation, like it is today, anything is possible,” said renowned mesothelioma specialist Dr. David Sugarbaker, director of the Lung Institute at Baylor College of Medicine.

While the prognosis was once 6-12 months to live after a diagnosis, many survivors today are living three, four, five and more years beyond their life expectancy.

Seniors, it seems, are targeted, but mostly because of the long latency period (20-50 years) between first exposure and diagnosis. Although it takes decades to develop, mesothelioma is especially aggressive once it takes hold, making an early diagnosis critical to long-term survival.

Seniors should be aware of the early signs — which often mirror those of less serious illnesses — and discuss their work history with their physician if they worked earlier with asbestos products.

The early symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Persistent dry cough
  • Fatigue
  • Night sweats

Seniors often discount these types of symptoms, attributing them to growing older. But if they do and they’ve been exposed to asbestos, they may be missing the chance of an early diagnosis before the cancer has metastasized, and when it can be managed better.

Unlike lung, prostate, breast and other more common cancers, mesothelioma remains a mystery to many doctors, even oncologists who rarely treat it or even see it. They struggle to catch it early.

It is often misdiagnosed initially. A fluid buildup around the lungs can be alleviated and wrongly attributed to something else, delaying the extensive imaging tests that could properly identify the cancer.

Mesothelioma begins when toxic, asbestos fibers are ingested or inhaled unknowingly. They can become lodged in the thin membrane surrounding the lungs or abdomen.

The fibers slowly cause inflammation, scarring and cellular abnormalities, leading to any number of serious respiratory health issues, including asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma.

The key to treatment is finding a mesothelioma specialist who understands its intricacies and the latest therapies. This is different from lung cancer.

Treatment advances have been made in recent years. A personalized, multidisciplinary approach that includes surgery, chemotherapy and radiation has been effective.

There are cutting-edge immunotherapy and gene therapy drugs being tested now in clinical trials showing considerable promise in controlling and managing it much like medicine has done with diabetes.

There are organizations such as the Pleural Mesothelioma Center that can provide help for patients and families dealing with a diagnosis. Patient Advocates there can help you find medical specialists, top treatment centers, support groups and even provide financial assistance for those in need. They can offer advice and answer questions.

The team here at Care At Home Services also can help at any level of in-home care. Our caregivers who will provide the personalized assistance a patient or a family may need, at any level, from simple companionship to 24-hour nursing care. We are here to assist you.

Tim Povtak is a content writer for the Pleural Mesothelioma Center, an informational source for patients and families.

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