Malignant Mesothelioma-A Guide to Understanding a Silent Killer

Malignant mesothelioma is often called a silent killer because of the challenge that medical experts routinely encounter in diagnosing it. The key to understanding this diagnostic difficulty lies with both its notoriously ambiguous symptomology and its unusually long latency period. The following article explores both of these factors in greater detail.

Three-thousand Americans are diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma each year. Of those diagnosed, the vast majority of cases are not caught until they are already in the late stages of the illness. What this essentially means is that most people afflicted by mesothelioma cancer are slowly being overcome by the illness without having any idea about what is happening inside of them—hence the ominous moniker.

This is a fact largely attributed to the highly ambiguous nature of early-stage mesothelioma symptoms. Most seemingly healthy people, not having any suspicion that they are at risk for developing a rare and terminal form of cancer, will pay little attention to the apparently benign symptoms of mesothelioma. These early warning signs are easily confused with symptoms related to common and relatively non-worrisome conditions like the common cold and even seasonal allergies, often called hay fever.

Symptoms frequently exhibited by first-stage malignant mesothelioma, which is still contained locally in a single affected organ, include coughing and wheezing, as well as a persistently hoarse voice. Fatigue is also quite common, as are mild to moderate chest pains.

Even seeking the evaluation of a physician is often ineffective in distinguishing these early symptoms, unless that physician has knowledge of the patient’s full history—namely, the presence of past exposure to asbestos. Ninety percent of malignant mesothelioma cases are attributable directly to that cause, but if either the patient or doctor or both are unaware of such past exposure, the likelihood of considering mesothelioma as a diagnostic possibility is slim.

Often times, patients do not know that they have been exposed to asbestos in the past. Other times, this exposure is simply not on the their radar because such a significant period of time has lapsed since it occurred.

Mesothelioma usually takes anywhere from 30 to 50 years to fully develop, which means that people who were exposed half a century ago are routinely being diagnosed now. The long time period of the primary cause behind malignant mesothelioma constitutes perhaps its most dangerous characteristic of all.

By the time most cases of mesothelioma have been detected and treatment can begin, it is too late for that treatment to have much chance of effectiveness. This is because second- and third-stage mesothelioma has spread beyond the initially affected organ, either to the lymph nodes or beyond, into other organs. In such a scenario, traditional treatment methods like surgery and chemotherapy are unlikely to be effectual in eradicating the cancer cells—resulting in an extremely high ratio of mesothelioma patients who expire within one to two years after being diagnosed.