Getting older can be difficult – joints get stiff and the memory may become foggy. What is often not thought of as we watch our grandkids play and enjoy a nice walk are the toxins that we are constantly coming into contact with, such as asbestos. The toxin is a known carcinogen and, unfortunately, is still legal in the United States. Today is National Senior Citizens Day, a great opportunity to educate yourself on how to inform and protect the world’s aging population from mesothelioma cancer

Asbestos was commonly used in building materials through the 1970s due to its ability to resist heat, fire, and electricity. The toxin can still be found in floor/ceiling tiles, insulation, furnaces, paneling, and cements in homes and public spaces across the country. People are at an increased risk of exposure when asbestos particles are disturbed and released into the air. When inhaled, the microscopic fibers embed in the lining of the body’s organs and, over time, mesothelioma cancer can develop in the lungs, heart, or abdominal cavity. Pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of the disease, accounting for 70 to 80 percent of all diagnoses.

Although many people have heard of mesothelioma, awareness is poor and few fully understand the intricacies of the disease. There is currently no cure for mesothelioma and it is very hard to detect. Symptoms typically do not manifest until 20 to 50 years after asbestos exposure. After such a long time has passed, many patients have forgotten when they might have come into contact with the material and cannot assist their physician in the diagnosis process.

Detecting the cancer is further complicated by the variety of symptoms associated. Each form of the disease presents symptoms specific to the location of the cancer. For instance, peritoneal mesothelioma, which forms in the abdominal cavity, involves stomach pain, swelling, and weight loss. On the other hand, pericardial mesothelioma, which develops in the heart, impacts cardiovascular operation and may cause chest pain, fluid buildup and heart murmurs. The difference of presentation makes it difficult for medical professionals to pinpoint the cause of a patient’s discomfort, often leading to late stage diagnosis.

Late stage diagnosis, usually in the third and fourth stages of the disease, is problematic because a patient’s prognosis worsens as the disease progresses. Patients who are fortunate enough to receive an accurate diagnosis in the first stage of the illness typically live at least 21 months. By the fourth stage, the cancer has often spread throughout the body and patients often live only 12 months after diagnosis. Once mesothelioma has progressed into the third and fourth stages there is often no longer any viable treatment options and palliative care is the patient’s only choice.

The facts might be harrowing, but it is not meant to cause undue stress. Being aware of your health risks and communicating with your doctor if you feel you may have been exposed to asbestos is the best way to ensure you receive appropriate and accurate medical care. Something seen as a benign cough could be a warning sign of pleural mesothelioma. As you age, your chances of survival decrease – making early detection paramount. Take control of your health today and have a frank discussion with your doctor – it could save your life.

By Rachel Lynch