Mesothelioma is an extremely aggressive type of cancer that has a very poor prognosis. There is no cure, and on average, patients diagnosed with the disease face a life expectancy of around 1 year. The thought of facing a mesothelioma diagnosis is daunting, leading many to question whether they are susceptible.
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Asbestos and Mesothelioma
Researchers have found that asbestos is the only proven, direct cause of malignant mesothelioma. When asbestos-containing materials are disturbed, the fibers are released into the air and can then become easily inhaled or ingested. The fibers become imbedded in organ linings, causing irritation and scarring over time. This can damage the healthy cells’ DNA over time, resulting in mutations that develop into tumors.
There are three types of mesothelioma that can develop as a result of exposure, including pleural mesothelioma (the most common), as well as peritoneal mesothelioma and pericardial mesothelioma. Mesothelioma cancer cells are extremely fast-growing, challenging early detection and effective treatment options.
Other Causes of Mesothelioma
While 90% of mesothelioma cases have been directly linked to asbestos exposure, research has suggested there are other non-asbestos risk factors that could be potential causes or contributors to mesothelioma development, including:
Radiation exposure: Some mesothelioma cancer patients feel that exposure to radiation caused their mesothelioma, without any asbestos exposure, though this is yet to be confirmed.
High aspect ratio nanoparticles (HARNs): Some cases have demonstrated a link between HARNs (such as carbon nanoparticles) and mesothelioma, but without conclusive evidence.
Zeolites: Zeolites are silicone-based materials that exhibit similar characteristics to asbestos fibers, also acting as potential risk factors for the cancer. Erionite in particular has been associated with mesothelioma, especially within cases in Cappadocia, Turkey, where the mineral exists naturally.
Simian Virus 40 (SV40): Research shows that the SV40 virus doesn’t appear to be a direct cause of malignant mesothelioma, but could be a contributing factor to some mesothelioma cases.
Who Is Most at Risk?
With asbestos exposure identified as the primary mesothelioma risk factor, research is conclusive that increased exposure correlates with an increased risk of developing the cancer.
Exposure to Asbestos in the Workplace
One of the most common places that asbestos exposure occurs is in the workplace. Based on existing cases and research, those who are most at risk include those that have worked at or in shipyards, construction sites, steel mills, oil refineries, asbestos mines, power plants, railroads, military ships and facilities, and within the automotive industry. However, dorms, schools and older homes have also been seen to contain asbestos that often becomes disturbed during renovations, repairs and expansions.
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Similarly, there are still many products that contain asbestos, and working with or becoming exposed to these products could lead to development of the cancer and other asbestos-related diseases.
Pre-Existing Risk Factors for Mesothelioma
It’s important to note that not everyone exposed to asbestos develops mesothelioma. However, there are some pre-existing characteristics that could make them more or less susceptible to developing the cancer.
Poor overall health should also be taken into consideration, making individuals more susceptible to some diseases, such as cancer. But most importantly, poor health conditions can jeopardize the patient’s ability to go through certain cancer treatments.
Smoking and Mesothelioma
While there is no proven direct link between smoking and mesothelioma, data has shown that smokers who have been exposed to asbestos are 50–90% more likely to develop lung cancer. Similarly, asbestos-exposed individuals that smoke are twice as likely to develop mesothelioma.
Asbestos has yet to be fully banned, and is therefore still present in many of our environments and products. Efforts continue to identify and eliminate sources of asbestos, with help from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in instating asbestos laws and with continued mesothelioma research from organizations like the National Cancer Institute.
To prevent contact with the cancer-causing materials, individuals should educate themselves on asbestos, including what products still contain the toxin and where it has been found. If asbestos or asbestos-like mineral fibers are suspected, they should not be disturbed. A certified asbestos removal expert should be brought in to handle and dispose of the toxin.
Knowing the other known risk factors associated with mesothelioma can help individuals be more conscious of a potential diagnosis. Furthermore, any suspected symptoms should be addressed with a health care provider immediately. Early detection is key to ensuring a wide range of cancer care treatment options and the longest life expectancy possible.
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