Mesothelioma: Understanding the Dangers of Asbestos Exposure

When thinking about lung cancer and its risk factors, it’s natural to immediately think about smoking. However, there are other forms of lung cancer and, with them, other risk factors. Mesothelioma is a rare, but serious, lung cancer heavily linked with exposure to asbestos. Nationally, between 2,000-3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year. At Roswell Park, we see a slightly elevated number of mesothelioma patients allegedly due to the high number of industrial and factory jobs in Western New York. These jobs were even more prevalent just a few decades ago and many of them were located inside manufacturing plants that may have contained asbestos.

The best way to avoid mesothelioma is by limiting exposure to asbestos. This is the main risk factor for the disease and is very strongly associated with it. The problem with this is that you may not always aware of asbestos exposure. If you are employed in a factory or warehouse setting, consider getting checked out. Remember also that exposure is not necessarily restricted to factory settings -- older office buildings may also be at risk.

If you are aware of prior contact with asbestos, I highly recommend joining a screening program or getting annual chest x-rays to watch for signs of asbestosis or pleural effusion, both of which typically lead to a mesothelioma diagnosis. The earlier this disease is spotted, the better. Part of what makes mesothelioma so dangerous is that it typically will not develop until 20-50 years after exposure.

The main symptom to be aware of is shortness of breath. The presence of a mesothelioma tumor may lead to fluid accumulation in the chest area, which tends to compress the lungs. When it comes to treating mesothelioma, a multifaceted approach is best. In this case, the cornerstone for curative treatment is surgery, but any operation must be combined in a rational fashion with both chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

I can’t stress enough the importance of limiting your contact with asbestos. In some cases, patients have been exposed without even knowing it, so please be mindful of the symptoms. If you feel short of breath, or have fluid buildup around the lungs that is not a result of any other condition, seek an expert opinion about the possibility of mesothelioma as soon as possible.