Mesothelioma is a rare cancer, and because of that, there are many myths surrounding the disease. For mesothelioma patients and their families, helping to dispel these myths and educating others about the cancer can lead to better support. In an article published last year, Michele Carbone, MD, PhD, one of the country’s premier experts on mesothelioma and director of the University of Hawaii Cancer Center, presented detailed information about mesothelioma to clear up many fallacies and inconsistencies reported in association with the asbestos-caused cancer.
Myth #1: The number of mesothelioma cases is declining now that asbestos use is regulated.
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While many uses for asbestos were banned in the mid-1970’s, the risk from exposure continues to this day because of mesothelioma’s long latency and incubation periods. Symptoms, most commonly affecting the lungs, can sometimes take between 10-70 years to appear making diagnosis of the disease difficult.
Asbestos continues to be a threat to workers exposed through their occupations and in buildings that were erected or renovated prior to the ban. However, even though asbestos exposure in the workplace has largely been eliminated in the United States, asbestos products used in older buildings degrade over time resulting in asbestos fibers being dispersed into the environment.
According to Carbone, over 20 million people in the United States are at risk of developing malignant mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure. Although prior to the 1950’s, mesothelioma was rare, as noted by Carbone, mesothelioma is now responsible for approximately 3,000 deaths per year in the U.S. Carbone further estimates that mortality rates from mesothelioma will increase by 5-10% per year in most industrialized countries until about 2020.
First responders to the World Trade Center terrorist attacks are now at risk of developing mesothelioma. Asbestos was used to insulate the lower half of the first World Trade Center tower, and some studies report over 400 tons of asbestos dust was released into the air upon the collapse of the buildings. A pattern has emerged of negative health effects among firefighters who responded to the 9/11 tragedy. That pattern persuaded a medical advisory panel in 2012 to recommend adding mesothelioma to the list of cancers and diseases for which firefighters and first responders should receive compensation and treatment.
Myth #2: Only men over 65-years-old are diagnosed with mesothelioma.
While it is true that nearly 80 percent of the mesothelioma cases are diagnosed in men, typically in their late 60’s to 70’s, younger men and women are also susceptible to developing the disease. Men tend to develop the cancer more often than women due to the greater presence of men in the kinds of heavy industrial jobs such as ship building, mining and automotive repair where asbestos was prevalent.
However, the men who worked around asbestos, and brought the fibers home on their clothing, shoes and in their hair, may have inadvertently exposed their children and spouses to the deadly toxin leading to second-hand exposure. Inhalation of the toxic asbestos fibers through second-hand exposure can lead to mesothelioma. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reported that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.
According to researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, women tend to develop mesothelioma at an earlier age than men, but they live longer with the disease after surgery.
One of the featured patients on MesotheliomaHelp.org, Jan Egerton of England, was diagnosed with mesothelioma at the age of 44. She has developed a large network of mesothelioma survivors and finds that many of them are women and younger men. In an email to Nancy Meredith she said, “Mesothelioma is without a doubt no longer an old man’s disease.”
Myth # 3: Pleural mesothelioma is just another lung cancer caused by smoking.
Unlike many other predominantly pulmonary-related cancers, cigarette smoking has no known causative affect on pleural mesothelioma incidence. Mesothelioma is caused by past exposure to asbestos. As a result, mesothelioma is an entirely preventable disease. Unfortunately, many people that develop mesothelioma were unaware of the dangers of asbestos in the workplace.
Even small amounts of asbestos and infrequent exposure can create a risk for contracting mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer or other asbestos-related diseases. However, according to Carbone, workers in trades where they experienced higher levels of asbestos exposure may also experience a shorter latency time compared to those exposed to less asbestos.
Some researchers report that patients who have previously been exposed to asbestos and also smoke may have a higher risk of developing the cancer. In addition, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, smoking may reduce the effectiveness of cancer treatment. Patients who continue to smoke and undergo surgery may have an increased risk of heart and lung complications, including increased problems from general anesthesia.