Insights August 2018
National Senior Citizens Day | Senior Health Awareness

Protecting the World’s Aging Population from Mesothelioma

Rachel Lynch

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, “Cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada and is responsible for 30 percent of all deaths in the country.” In a more granular sense, the Canadian Cancer Society reports that one in two Canadians will receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime, and due to the lack of treatment and cures, one in four Canadians will die of the disease.

Cancer doesn't discriminate and the disease touches people from all walks of life. Although there are a myriad of different types of cancer, some impact certain demographics more commonly than others.

More than 90 percent of people diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer are seniors aged 55 or older. August 21 is National Senior Citizens day, and is the perfect opportunity to raise awareness about a rare cancer disproportionately affecting the aging population.

Mesothelioma Cancer Basics

Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma. Accurately diagnosing the cancer is difficult because of the disease’s long latency period. In many cases, symptoms do not begin to show until 20 to 50 years after a person was initially exposed to the toxic fibers.

The disease develops after inhalation or ingestion of the microscopic asbestos fibers. After entering the body, the fibers become embedded in the lining of internal organs, including the lungs, heart or abdomen. There are three forms of the cancer, differentiated by where in the body the disease originates. Pleural mesothelioma, which occurs in the lungs, is the most common form of the disease and accounts for up to 90 percent of all diagnosed cases.

Early detection is directly correlated with improved patient prognosis. Unfortunately, the average age at diagnosis is 75 for men, and 72 for women. Typically, the older a patient is, the shorter the life expectancy is. When diagnosed later in life the cancer has sometimes already progressed into its advanced stages and other health issues eliminate viable treatment options

In addition to age, a mesothelioma patient’s prognosis is impacted by the stage of disease, location of tumors, cell type, and gender.

How Does Exposure Happen?

There is currently no cure for mesothelioma, so increasing awareness within the most affected communities can be lifesaving. There is no safe level of asbestos exposure and the mineral is not banned in all countries. There are currently only about 60 countries that have either a partial or full ban of asbestos. Canada currently has a partial ban in place. A ban on asbestos use in brake shoes and automotive uses will begin in 2019, with chlorine use of the toxin being phased out and eventually banned by 2025.

Unfortunately, even if we were able to phase out global asbestos use today, people would continue to get sick for years. This is primarily due to legacy uses of the mineral, which include thousands of building materials and other products. The mineral was, and in some countries is, used in many commercial and industrial settings because of its ability to resist heat, fire, and electricity. Asbestos can be found in wallpaper, flooring, ceiling tiles, insulation, piping, roofing, and boilers. Additionally, the mineral was widely used aboard ships, so veterans may be diagnosed years after their service.

Occupational asbestos exposure is common among firefighters, carpenters, electricians, welders, ironworkers, crane operators and construction workers, among many more. In addition to employees, their families are also at risk of developing mesothelioma through secondhand asbestos exposure.

Signs and Symptoms

It’s anticipated that the rate of death for mesothelioma in developed countries will increase by 5 to 10 percent annually through 2020. With that in mind, it’s incredibly important to know what to look for in yourself and loved ones. Mesothelioma symptoms are hard to spot and, unfortunately, many doctors are not well-versed in the disease’s subtleties. The cancer is often misdiagnosed at first as a more common illness like the flu or pneumonia.

Each form of mesothelioma presents with a unique set of symptoms signalling the specific type. Pleural mesothelioma impacts the respiratory system, and patients may suffer from shortness of breath and chest pain. Peritoneal mesothelioma often includes weight loss and stomach or abdominal pain. Symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma, the least common form, mimic a heart attack.

Regular checkups can help medical professionals pinpoint small changes in a patient's health that might signal a larger issue, such as a recurring cough or fluid buildup.

What Can You Do?

If you believe you’ve been exposed to asbestos, it might be best to have a frank discussion with your doctor about testing to check for tumor growth.

Opening a dialogue now can help tackle any potential future risks. Making notes like these on your chart can enable a faster diagnosis if symptoms present themselves years later. If you have an older friend or relative in your life, take some time to discuss with them what asbestos and mesothelioma are. Encourage them to seek medical attention if they think they’ve been exposed.

Without a cure on the horizon, raising awareness and using our voices are the best ways to combat this dreadful and heinous disease.

About the Author(s)

Rachel Lynch, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance


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