Myths and Misconceptions About Mesothelioma

Despite an increasing number of news reports, the American public remains unaware of the various causes, impact, dangers and treatments for mesothelioma. Although mesothelioma is considered a rare cancer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported these mesothelioma statistics: From 1999 to 2005, 18,068 human deaths were linked to malignant mesothelioma.1

Each year, 3,000 patients are diagnosed and thousands more die from this condition. These statistics about mesothelioma are troubling. Although they do not give insight into mesothelioma survival rates, they do indicate that early and accurate diagnosis improves mesothelioma life expectancy and patient outcomes. But there are some mistaken beliefs that surround the disease that may prompt potential sufferers from seeking mesothelioma treatment.

Following are some myths and misconceptions about mesothelioma.

  • Asbestos is the only cause of mesothelioma.
  • Only old people and construction workers get mesothelioma.
  • Masks are sufficient protection against future mesothelioma risk.
  • Mesothelioma affects only the lungs.
  • Mesothelioma is caused by smoking.
  • People diagnosed with mesothelioma cannot expect to live long lives.
  • Mesothelioma is untreatable.

What is mesothelioma?

The general public still asks, "What is mesothelioma?" The answer is not quick or short. Mesothelioma is a cancer that affects the linings around the heart, lungs and abdomen.2 Other areas that can be affected include bones, muscles, testes and throat. There are cell and tumor forms of the disease, and the most common types are pleural mesothelioma, abdominal mesothelioma and pericardial mesothelioma.

Myth 1: Asbestos is the only cause

Asbestos exposure is the most common risk factor. In a majority of mesothelioma cases, asbestos exposure is a confirmed cause; however, mesothelioma is linked to other causes,3 including radiation, SV40 virus and zeolites (minerals similar to asbestos).

Asbestos exposure can cause troubling symptoms and serious medical problems, which include various cancers of the throat, lungs, gastrointestinal organs, muscles, bones, cavity linings and even the brain. Asbestosis, an inflammatory condition associated with shortness of breath and scarring of the lungs, can occur as well. As such, asbestos exposure symptoms4 include breathing issues, fatigue, weakness, anemia, loss of weight, nausea, vomiting and pain.

Myth 2: Only old people and construction workers get mesothelioma

The average age of mesothelioma patients is 60, but recently teenagers have been diagnosed with the condition. Secondary exposure or even walking through asbestos-contaminated areas are linked to these incidences of the disease. The same is true for construction workers. The construction industry used asbestos heavily for buildings built before 1980. Mesothelioma has also been diagnosed in miners, teachers and even students. Mesothelioma affects men and woman, young and old, and people of all races and ethnicities.

Asbestos,5 a combination of magnesium and calcium silicate, consists of fibers that are resistant to heat, electrical and chemical damage. While the term is often used in a general way, it applies to a number of silicate mineral compounds that still exist in American homes. Products such as cement, roof shingles, car parts, packaging, floor tiles and drywall contain asbestos.

Myth 3: Masks are sufficient protection against future mesothelioma risk

Protecting oneself or one’s family from asbestos exposure starts with wearing a mask, but this safeguard may not be enough.6 Asbestos dust can still be trapped in clothing or linger in the air for long periods. It can contaminate water or food. A person needs to wear protective clothes and practice safe disposal of asbestos products.

Myth 4: Mesothelioma affects only the lungs

Pleural mesothelioma is the most common type of the disease.7 Affecting more than three-fourths of mesothelioma patients, this type affects the lining covering the lungs. Other forms of the disease are named for the areas they affect. Pericardial mesothelioma affects the lining covering the heart. Peritoneal (abdominal) mesothelioma attacks the membrane covering the abdomen. The rarely diagnosed testicular mesothelioma8 occurs in the membrane lining of the scrotum.

Myth 5: Mesothelioma is caused by smoking

Just as there is a high incidence of lung cancer among smokers, some believe that mesothelioma may be caused by smoking. However, mesothelioma is not lung cancer, as proven by the existence of pericardial, testicular and abdominal forms of the disease. The condition is caused by various factors, but researchers believe that smoking does not cause mesothelioma. The American Lung Association9 reports that smoking coupled with asbestos exposure could increase the risk for lung cancer.

Myth 6: People diagnosed with mesothelioma cannot expect to live long lives

Life expectancy for mesothelioma varies. The latency, or dormant, stage of mesothelioma may last years. If the disease is left untreated, many patients may die within four to 12 months of diagnosis. The American Cancer Society reports that between 5 and 10 percent of mesothelioma patients live at least five years post diagnosis. These hopeful statistics offer insight into the success of early detection and treatment of mesothelioma and patients' potential survival rates.10

Myth 7: Mesothelioma is untreatable

While mesothelioma has no cure, doctors and researchers are constantly developing new mesothelioma treatment protocols and therapies that improve patient outcomes. Researchers at New York University’s Langone Medical Center recently reported a new protein biomarker that could be helpful in making a more effective diagnosis of mesothelioma.11 Doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, also in New York, began testing a new treatment called pleural injection.12 With these and other medical advances, life expectancy and survival rates for mesothelioma patients are more promising.

Mesothelioma is a serious condition. And the more accurate information about "what mesothelioma is" and "what mesothelioma isn't" can only prompt people to seek treatment. Contracting this disease is not limited to those with excessive exposure to asbestos. Nor is developing the disease a matter of contagion or hereditary. Understanding asbestos exposure symptoms and warning signs, such as breathing issues, fatigue, abdominal pain and weight loss, is crucial. The more the general public learns about its causes, diagnosis and treatment, the greater the chance people will have healthier and more productive lives.

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