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Mesothelioma - the slow killer often caused by asbestos

What is mesothelioma?

When it comes to illness caused by cancer we generally think about smoking related cancers. Many argue that diet has an adverse impact on the body too, paving the way for cancer to take hold and then there are the skin cancers caused by over exposure to the sun. However, a type of cancer caused by asbestos exposure is often overlooked.

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that develops from the thin layer of tissue that covers many of the internal organs, known as the mesothelium. The most common area affected is the lining of the lungs and chest wall. Sometimes the lining of the abdomen and occasionally the fine membrane surrounding the heart, or the membrane surrounding the testis can be affected.

Signs and symptoms of mesothelioma often include shortness of breath due to fluid around the lung, a swollen abdomen, chest wall pain, a cough, increased lethargy and steady weight loss. These symptoms will often happen over a protracted period of time.

Most mesothelioma cases caused by asbestos

More than eighty percent of mesothelioma cases are caused by exposure to asbestos. This may be in the work place or possibly in the home if the asbestos has not been kept intact and sealed. The more an individual is exposed to asbestos, the greater risk they will have of falling victim to mesothelioma later on in life. A report into this issue from 2013 found that about 125 million people throughout the world have been exposed to asbestos at work. Very high rates of disease occur in people who mine asbestos, produce products from asbestos, work with asbestos products, live with asbestos workers, or work in buildings containing asbestos. Even washing the clothing of someone who worked with asbestos has proved to increase the risk of this terrible condition.

There are some other risk factors that include genetics and infection with the simian virus 40. Asbestos exposure and the onset of cancer are generally separated by about forty years, so it comes as a shock to many as they feel that they have not been in close contact with asbestos, but may have many years before.

Mesothelioma treatment

Treatment for mesothelioma can include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. A procedure known as pleurodesis, which involves using substances such as talc to scar together the pleura, may be used to prevent more fluid from building up around the lungs. Chemotherapy often includes various other medications to compliment the treatment.The percentage of people in the United States of America that survive five years following diagnosis of mesothelioma is only around eight percent on average.

Statistics from 2015 indicated that nearly sixty one thousand people had mesothelioma, and just over half this number died from the disease. Rates of mesothelioma tend to be different in different parts of the world and reflect the countries previous practices and uses of asbestos both in the workplace and the construction industry. Countries with higher rates of the condition are Australia and the United Kingdom, but the condition is recorded much less in Japan. Mesothelioma occurs in about three thousand people per year in the United States of America.

Mesothelioma appears to occur more often in men than it does in women. Diagnosis of mesothelioma usually occurs after the age of sixty five and most deaths seem to occur around seventy years of age.

Celebrities who died with mesothelioma

Steve McQueen, Actor (1930 - 1980)

Steve McQueen was well known for his roles in The Magnificent Seven, Bullit and The Great Escape.

McQueen believed his exposure to asbestos started in the United States Marines Corps, probably owing to asbestos pipe lagging on board the ship. He experienced further exposure to asbestos when he began racing motorcycles and cars, because he wore a flame retardant driver suit that contained asbestos.

Ed Lauter, Actor (1938 - 2013)

Ed Lauter worked for more than 40 years in the film and television industry, playing supporting roles in The Longest Yard, Trouble with the Curve, Death Wish 3 and Born on the Fourth of July.

Lauter was in the middle of a film project when he was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma. He died less than six months later.

His history of exposure to asbestos, which probably caused his mesothelioma cancer, was unclear at the time of his death, but many suspect it was owing to asbestos that was present backstage in film studios.

Malcolm McLaren, Sex Pistols manager (1946 - 2010)

He was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in October 2009, and died of the disease on 8 April 2010 in a hospital in Switzerland.

Paul Gleason, Actor (1939 - 2006)

Paul Gleason was often portrayed as tough guys and unscrupulous, white collar criminals. He was best known for roles in The Breakfast Club, Trading Places and Die Hard.

The actor believed that his exposure to asbestos that resulted in mesothelioma came from working construction jobs as a teenager. Asbestos used in the construction industry was widespread until the ban came into place.

Owing to the nature of mesothelioma, many patients who are diagnosed will have been exposed to the damaging asbestos fibres many years before, which is why mesothelioma is sometimes labelled as the slow killer, despite the relative speed death follows on from diagnosis.

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