Although there is no cure for mesothelioma, if the disease is caught in its early stages, treatment options and outcomes do improve. However, because the time between first exposure to asbestos and diagnosis of mesothelioma is usually between 20 and 50 years, the disease is usually detected when it is advanced. Besides the amount of time it takes for the disease and symptoms to develop, diagnosis is often delayed because these symptoms mimic other more common conditions. Because people mistake these symptoms for other minor ailments, they will either take their time getting to the doctor or ignore their symptoms altogether.
Time is everything when it comes to battling an aggressive disease like mesothelioma, so symptoms should never be ignored. Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma (mesothelioma of the chest) can include pain in the side of the chest or lower back, shortness of breath, cough, fever, excessive sweating, fatigue, weight loss (without trying), trouble swallowing (feeling like food gets stuck), hoarseness, and swelling of the face and arms. Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma (mesothelioma of the lining of the abdomen) can include abdominal (belly) pain, swelling or fluid in the abdomen, weight loss (without trying), nausea and vomiting, and constipation.
Though it may seem like it’s impossible to catch mesothelioma in its earlier stages, there are ways to evaluate your risk. This could prompt an earlier doctor visit, which could save your life. In addition, a number of detection methods are available or in development that could potentially detect mesothelioma early. Know that a mesothelioma specialist will use every tool available to help determine if mesothelioma has developed, may be developing, or could develop.
If you have been exposed to asbestos at any point in your life, you should tell your doctor. Your doctor should be aware of your history whether you have symptoms or not. When you visit your doctor, he will take a complete medical history to check for symptoms and all risk factors. Exposure to asbestos remains the number one risk factor for mesothelioma, so this crucial detail should always be part of the conversation.
Exposure to asbestos often occurs in a job where someone works with or around the material on a regular basis. Exposure can occur second hand as well. Second hand exposure happens when someone is in an environment where asbestos is airborne, such as near a mine or construction site. It can also occur when a worker brings asbestos into the home on his body, clothes, tools, and other objects.
High-risk occupations for asbestos exposure include construction, shipbuilding and military, demolition, pipe-fitting, auto repair, firefighting, railroad and refinery work, asbestos mining and milling, cleaning and custodial service, welding, and aerospace.
As mentioned, doctors and researchers are hard at work developing detection tests that could potentially identify mesothelioma early. These tests are in varying stages of clinical trials, and a few promising options are being used today. For example, blood tests that detect levels of three substances in the blood (fibulib-3, osteopontin, and soluble mesothelin-related peptides (SMRPs)) are helping doctors determine the possibility of mesothelioma in people who do not have any symptoms or few symptoms. Levels of the three substances are often elevated in people with the disease. So far, these blood tests cannot confirm a diagnosis of mesothelioma. However, high levels of these substances make mesothelioma more likely.
“For people with known exposure to asbestos,” explains the American Cancer Society (ACS), “some doctors recommend imaging tests such as chest x-rays or computed tomography (CT) scans to look for changes in the lungs that might be signs of mesothelioma or lung cancer.” Fluid and tissue sample tests, and biopsies are other methods.
The 5-year survival rate for mesothelioma is between 5% and 10%. However, people diagnosed at a younger age tend to survive longer, and those with stage I mesothelioma have a median survival of 21 months. Median survival means that half the patients in this group live longer than 21 months and half the patients don’t. The median survival for stage II patients is 19 months. Median survival for stage III and IV patients is 16 and 12 months, respectively.
“As a general rule,” says the ACS, “survival times are likely to be longer for people with mesotheliomas that can be operated on than for those with cancers that have spread too far to be removed.” Other prognostic factors, such as good performance status (being able to carry out normal tasks of daily life), female gender, epithelioid subtype, not having chest pain, no significant weight loss, normal levels of a substance in the blood called LDH, and normal red blood cell counts, white blood cell counts, and blood platelet counts can also affect survival. Further, patients who can have the mesothelioma surgically removed tend to do better than people who cannot have surgery.
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