Asbestos Cancer

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Asbestos is a mineral that occurs naturally in the crust of the Earth, having a fibrous appearance and a chemical composition the same as the surrounding rock it is found in. The strong, flexible fibers can be microscopic, so most are nearly impossible to see and, therefore, not detectable without laboratory analysis. Asbestos was mined and used because of its superior chemical resistance and flame retardant properties, making it valuable commercially for manufacturing and construction applications, as well as use in innumerable household items. Sadly, it has also been proven that prolonged exposure to asbestos often leads to the development of lung cancer or a particularly deadly form of cancer known as mesothelioma.

People who have been occupationally exposed to asbestos through their work with insulation, automobile components, paint and tile, in mines, shipyards and manufacturing facilities, for the railroads, and on construction sites have traditionally shown much higher cancer rates than the general population. Their jobs put them at higher risk of developing lung cancer, asbestosis, or mesothelioma. Tragically, their families are also victims with higher-than-average rates, exposed to the contaminated clothing, skin, and hair of workers not required to change and shower before leaving the work site.

Mesothelioma is currently diagnosed in approximately 3,000 people in the United States annually and that number is expected to increase over time.

Descending on its victims years or even decades after exposure, asbestos cancer has subtle symptoms that are easily dismissed, often until it is too late for effective treatment. The tiny asbestos fibers that are inhaled can become embedded in the lungs or chest and may result many years later in pleural mesothelioma, or if entered into the stomach or abdomen by swallowing, may lead to peritoneal mesothelioma.

Because success and selection of treatment is directly linked to stages of the disease, it is important for anyone who has a history that includes asbestos exposure to be aware of the symptoms and report them to their physician without delay. Pleural mesothelioma will be reflected in the chest area and lungs and may result in any of a list of symptoms that include shortness of breath, coughing, hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, fever, unexplained weight loss, fatigue, muscle soreness, and swelling of the face and arms. Peritoneal mesothelioma will be reflected in the abdominal area and may include nausea or vomiting, abdominal pain, and weight loss.

The prognosis after diagnosis will vary from patient to patient, but overall asbestos cancer does not lend itself to much hope. Only about 10% have survived beyond five years. Physicians have identified that non-smoking, younger patients who do not lose a lot of weight during treatment will fare better. Identifying the type of cancer cell that has formed will indicate the likelihood of responsiveness to treatment. Above all, early reporting of symptoms and a doctor's accurate staging of the disease will act as the best extenders of life.

As far as treatment options go, there are three methods commonly used. Surgery is probably the most effective way to get rid of cancerous cells. However, given the age of most mesothelioma patients, and how far the cancer has spread, two factors that make surgery difficult. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are also used to target growths, but again, the spread of the cancer is usually beyond treatment by the time it's detected. Scientists, however, are learning more each day about fighting back, and newer types of treatment are beginning to be implemented, including photodynamic therapy using light to kill the malignant cells and immunotherapy a treatment that uses the body's own immune system to combat the cancer. Unfortunately, no cure has been discovered for asbestos-related cancers.


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