Mesothelioma Awareness Day, each year on September 26, brings together patients, survivors, advocates, and experts to highlight rare cancer and its cause, asbestos. There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding the disease and asbestos, so better awareness and education are crucial to preventing this cancer and making progress in research.
Though only around 3,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, malignant mesothelioma cases are expected to continue to rise through the next decade at least. This rare cancer’s only confirmed cause is exposure to asbestos, a durable mineral that was used for centuries in products ranging from housing insulation to even crockpots. Though the Environmental Protection Agency has stricter regulations around the known carcinogen today, it is still not banned in the United States. Even with a ban, these legacy uses of the toxin in hundreds of thousands of buildings, homes, and schools will remain a threat.
Mesothelioma can develop when someone inhales or ingests loose asbestos fibers. The fibers can become airborne after the product has been damaged or disturbed somehow. This damage can occur from general aging of the building, construction projects, or even in the face of natural disasters. The fibers are invisible to the human eye, making it easy for exposure to occur without even realizing.
Once fibers are inhaled or ingested, they become stuck in the lining of organs, primarily the lungs. Since the fibers are so durable, the body can’t break them down and over a decade or more, these fibers can cause irritation and scarring that eventually develops into tumors. When symptoms finally start to show, they are nonspecific like a constant cough or chest pain. The long period before symptoms appear coupled with their general nature makes mesothelioma difficult to diagnose at an earlier, more treatable stage.
In general, patients face rather dire odds. On average, most patients are expected to live 12 to 21 months, and only about 10% of patients live 5 years or more. Thankfully, researchers have started to find more effective ways to diagnose the disease earlier, giving patients a better prognosis and more treatment options. Clinical trials have also started to progress the standard of care, giving patients more hope for survival.
Many rare cancers and diseases can often be overlooked in funding and research compared to more common cases of Lung Cancer. For mesothelioma, the last few years have seen some great advances in research, from diagnosing the disease to new treatment options, which has led to better survival rates and more hope for patients.
Researchers have developed blood tests and found biomarkers in recent years that has made it easier to diagnose rare cancer. Cancerous cells leave byproducts in the blood, which enables doctors to look for these specific proteins to help identify the presence of mesothelioma. One study even looked at the possibility of a breath test to identify compounds in the breath that could signal mesothelioma.
Clinical trials have also found promising new treatments for mesothelioma, including immunotherapy. The immunotherapy drug Keytruda, in particular, has been able to extend survival for a number of mesothelioma patients, and continued trials are ongoing to make the drug therapy as effective as possible. Immunotherapy is also being used in different multimodal techniques, such as testing it before surgery rather than after. So far, the studies have shown potential for extending patients’ survival, and will hopefully bring researchers that much closer to a cure one day.
This Mesothelioma Awareness Day, get involved in raising awareness for this rare cancer and the need for continued research. Until asbestos is banned, more work needs to be done to better prevent, diagnose and treat this disease. Together, we can all make a difference in the fight to end mesothelioma once and for all.
About the Author
The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance is an organization that works to support the mesothelioma community by providing information, resources, and assistance for those affected by this rare cancer.