If you or a loved one has been affected by a rare but serious cancer called malignant mesothelioma, it is both normal and expected to have basic questions about the disease itself—especially since its relative rarity and the fact that it has only recently become an epidemic on the national health radar makes it something of a mystery to the average American. The following article is organized into three basic sections, which correspond with three of the most common questions of people unfamiliar with the disease. Information is intended to cover the topics of prevalence, cause, diagnosis and treatment.
How many people are diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma and why so many within recent years?
Each year, somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma—making it one of the least common forms of cancer. The reason, however, for the tremendous amount of attention now afforded to the disease by the media, medical community and American public as a whole is related to its tremendous spike in its diagnostic prevalence during the late 21st century.
Prior to the 1900s, malignant mesothelioma was relatively unheard of. In fact, though it first presented on the medical community’s radar in the early part of the last century, it did not become routinely diagnosed at any rate of statistical significance until after the 1970s. The reason for this diagnostic turn is explained in detail throughout the next section.
What causes malignant mesothelioma, and who is at risk?
The vast majority—somewhere around 80 or 90 percent—of mesothelioma is caused exclusively by asbestos exposure. Asbestos was heavily used by the manufacturing industry in the years following the Industrial Revolution, before it became a known carcinogen and was banned and/or severely restricted during the 1970s and 80s.
Many individuals have been exposed to asbestos in a wide variety of settings, but the highest rate of exposure is connected with occupational contact. Industries like general building construction, as well as automotive manufacturing and repair, are known to have caused routinely high rates of exposure to asbestos-containing materials. Similarly, veterans of the U.S. Navy are known to have experienced a high degree of exposure to shipyard asbestos—even accounting for as many as 30 percent of all diagnosed mesothelioma cases.
Those who worked in asbestos-related industries during the years of its peak usage—in particular, the 1940s through the 1970s—are presumed to be most at risk for mesothelioma and other related conditions.
How do doctors treat malignant mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is known for being difficult to diagnose and extremely difficult to treat. Both characteristics of the disease are related to its long latency period. Typically, anywhere from 30 to 50 years or more transpire between the period of exposure and date of diagnosis. Secondarily, symptoms of the illnesses’ early stages are notoriously easy to overlook—often presenting like non-serious conditions ranging from the common cold to seasonal allergies.
For the reasons listed above, mesothelioma is usually diagnosed in its later stages, making treatment minimally effective and remission rare. Common treatment methods—usually palliative and not curative in nature—include chemotherapy, radiation and surgery to remove tumors and affected surrounding tissue.