Caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos, mesothelioma is a rare and deadly form of cancer that is common among those who worked regularly with the toxic mineral asbestos, but the disease has also been diagnosed in individuals who had only casual exposure to the toxic mineral. Doctors consider it one of the most difficult cancers to treat even though research has produced more and better treatments for the disease in recent years.
Mesothelioma is caused when tiny asbestos fibers are inhaled and become lodged in the chest cavity. Once inhaled, it’s impossible for the fibers to be expelled and they remain in the body, causing problems that range from mild scarring of the lungs to cancerous tumors. Often, symptoms of asbestos-related disease do not immediately surface and it isn’t until decades after they’ve worked with the mineral that some individuals begin to see these troubling symptoms, which include chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, dry cough, and weight loss. As a matter of fact, the cancer mesothelioma can remain latent in the body for up to 50 years. That means many people are diagnosed in their later years then their bodies are weaker and hard-pressed to fight the disease and also when the disease has reached its later stages, making treatment largely unsuccessful.
Mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases certainly aren’t a new phenomenon. As far back as the days of the Roman Empire, historians recorded instances of early death among slaves who worked in the asbestos mines, recognizing that asbestos was making them very ill and producing a variety of pulmonary and respiratory ailments.
However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that a definitive, recognized link between cancer and asbestos was made and the disease was given a name, even though numerous prior studies were conducted about asbestos and the high incidence of lung cancer among those who worked with the mineral. By that time, mesothelioma diagnoses were popping up everywhere but especially in areas where there were large numbers of shipyards or other industries that used asbestos liberally.
In addition, asbestos manufacturers weren’t eager to verify the connection between their product and mesothelioma, nor were those who owned or operated shops, factories, shipyards or other places where asbestos was widely used. That means workers rarely protected themselves from developing mesothelioma because they wore no face masks or respirators, unaware of the danger they were facing.
Today, mesothelioma remains a concern, even though warnings about asbestos use were issued more than 30 years ago. Each year in the U.S., about 2,000-3,000 new cases are diagnosed and despite advances in science, most patients still die within just a year or two of diagnosis.