If you were just diagnosed with mesothelioma, chances are you have a lot of questions about the disease itself, your diagnosis, treatment plan and prognosis. While your oncologist should be your primary source for information regarding your specific case, below is some important general information regarding mesothelioma.
What it is and how you acquired it
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral group found in low levels in the soil, water and air. Because of this, everyone has at least limited exposure to the substance at some point in their lives. However, due to the extremely low concentration of the material, these natural exposures are not enough to trigger mesothelioma.
Those who contract the disease usually have had either an occupational or extended environmental exposure, such as those who live in close proximity to an area where asbestos was mined.
Asbestos is not a particularly stable substance, and it is when it is displaced—as during the manufacturing, installation or demolition process—that the filaments float into the air and are taken into the lungs, where they get lodged. Repeated exposures cause a build-up of fibers that scar the delicate lung tissue and cause inflammation. Breathing may become labored over time, leading sufferers to seek medical assistance. It is often at this point that people receive their diagnosis of mesothelioma.
What body parts are affected?
While mesothelioma most commonly affects the pleura, the thin membrane inside the chest well covering the lungs, it also can be found in the peritoneum lining the abdominal cavity and covering the major organs contained inside of it. Much more rarely, it can form in tissues of the testicles and heart.
Mesothelioma frequently masquerades as lung cancer, and doctors must use differential diagnostic methods and take a detailed occupational history of patients with suspected mesothelioma to make a definitive diagnosis. Some of the diagnostic tests your doctor may run include:
History and physical exam?
Occupations with highest risk of mesothelioma
Beginning in the 1940s, asbestos was commonly used as a material in many manufacturing and building trades. Below are some industries where causative links to workers developing mesothelioma have been determined.
- Insulation installment
- Drywall and asbestos removal
- Auto mechanics (brake repair especially)
- Textile manufacturing
There is an extremely long latency period between the time of the exposure to asbestos and the manifestation of mesothelioma — in some cases, up to 40 years, although some patients may be diagnosed in as few as ten years after their exposure. Because of this delay, it is especially important for patients to be as precise as possible when detailing past work histories to their physicians, as doing so will make it easier to establish a timeline of the likely exposure and disease trajectory.
Governmental regulations for asbestos
Once the link between asbestos and cancer was established, the government imposed some restrictions on its use, beginning in the late ’70s when the Consumer Product Safety Commission imposed bans on the use of asbestos in some consumer products. Other industries voluntarily began using substitute materials in the production and manufacture of their products, and finally the Environmental Protection Agency stepped up in 1989 and issued a ban on any new uses of the material. This led to a decline of new exposures, but cases were still being diagnosed from prior exposures in the workplace.
9/11 and asbestos
The tragedy of 9/11 continues to unfold today, as first responders to the terror attacks in New York City and others continue to struggle with asbestos-related diseases. This is due to the immense, asbestos-laden dust clouds that resulted from the collapse of the twin towers, as that fateful morning, hundreds of tons of the toxic material were released into the air around Manhattan. The miasma hung over the city for weeks and drifted to distant boroughs and across the river to New Jersey. Those most at risk for future mesothelioma diagnoses include:
- Police officers
- Construction workers
- Others who lived and worked close to Ground Zero
Secondary asbestos exposures
After the occupational link between asbestos and mesothelioma was discovered, researchers began noting a curious trend. Some close family members of those with the diagnosis with no occupational exposures of their own were beginning to show symptoms of the disease. This was primarily seen in spouses of workers when the wives were responsible for laundering their husbands’ work clothing. However, some children of the workers also showed symptoms, most likely from running to hug and greet their laborer fathers when the men returned home from their work days, still clad in clothing coated with asbestos fibers that cling to fabric, shoes, hair and skin.
More laws were implemented to reduce the likelihood of more secondary exposures, and now employees who work with or around asbestos must take special precautions. Some have to shower and change to street clothing before leaving the job site, store their work clothing in specially designated areas and agree to launder them at home separately from the family laundry.
Factors determining mesothelioma risk
While there is much that is known about the disease, some questions remain regarding the role of exposure to asbestos and the later development of mesothelioma. For instance, researchers agree that the duration and amount of exposure can increase the risk, yet some with relatively limited exposures to asbestos in their workplace still have been diagnosed with asbestos-related conditions like asbestosis and mesothelioma.
The source of the exposure can be a factor, as can the type of asbestos fiber, as some research indicates that the amphibole form of asbestos might be more hazardous than chrysotile. Researchers determined that this is because amphibole fibers linger longest in the lungs, increasing the chance of deadly scarring to form.
Facing the future with a mesothelioma diagnosis
Your most important concern at this juncture must be your health. Following your doctor’s advice and making lifestyle changes like quitting smoking if you haven’t already should be foremost in your mind. However, there are additional steps that you can take to attempt to right the scales of justice in your favor. An asbestos attorney can advise you on how to proceed with litigation against the companies or entities that were responsible for your occupational exposure to asbestos and mesothelioma diagnosis.
At Shrader & Associates L.L.P., we understand the seriousness of your condition and have many resources available to share with our clients as they fight this deadly disease.