Mesothelioma and Senior Lung Health: What You Need to Know
In support of Healthy Lung Month, QMedic invites you to learn more about the dangers of mesothelioma and the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance (MCA). To learn more about MCA’s great work, please visit https://www.mesothelioma.com/.
Byline: Rachel Lynch | Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance
“Cancer” is a hot button word—when people hear it they often get an image of someone special in their lives that they’ve lost to the disease. Cancer does not discriminate, as it impacts people of all ages, genders and race. However, different types of cancer can victimize specific people. For instance, there is one cancer in particular—mesothelioma—that disproportionately impacts the senior citizen community.
What is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that takes the lives of 15,000 Americans every year. Of those mesothelioma deaths, 67% are individuals between the ages of 65-84.
You might be thinking—my loved one is safe at home how can they contract this rare cancer now? Unfortunately, mesothelioma has a very long latency period. The cancer can develop 20-50 years after asbestos exposure occurs. As of now, the only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos.
Pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of the disease, which develops in the lining of the lungs. That one strain alone accounts for 70% of all mesothelioma diagnoses.
How Does Age impact the Survival Rate?
As with most serious illnesses, younger patients often have more strength on reserve to help fight off disease. Mesothelioma cases are no different. From 2008-2013, only 5.8% of patients over age 65 were five-year survivors. Older patients tend to have other health conditions that can exacerbate the disease or limit treatment options.
While advanced age may play a primary role in the battle a patient faces, it is not the only factor impacting prognosis. Other factors include the location of the cancer. Peritoneal mesothelioma (in the abdomen) has a slightly better prognosis than pleural mesothelioma (in the lungs), whereas pericardial mesothelioma (in the heart) has a very poor prognosis.
The type of mesothelioma cancer cells also influence prognosis. Of the three primary cell types of mesothelioma, epithelioid mesothelioma is the most common and also has a better prognosis than sarcomatoid or biphasic mesothelioma.
As with all cancers the stage at which treatment begins greatly impacts prognosis. Most often mesothelioma is not diagnosed until Stage 3 or 4, where the only option left is palliative care. Most individuals diagnosed at Stage 4 Mesothelioma only live for 12 months.
How Does Someone Contract the Disease?
The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. When inhaled, asbestos fibers embed themselves in the lining of the organs where mesothelioma develops. Asbestos is microscopic and not visible to the naked eye. If left undisturbed, asbestos products are relatively harmless but once the fibers are released into the air, they can drastically impact an individual's life.
Asbestos was heavily used in the United States through the 1970s in both industrial and commercial settings. The fibers were popular due to their resistance to heat, fire and electricity. As a result, you could find asbestos in wallpaper, cement, floor and ceiling tile, radiators, paneling, piping and shingles. In addition to the building industry, asbestos was an important tool in the automotive field for brakes, clutches, gaskets and other, older car parts may contain the hazardous material.
Asbestos products were even used in the military where servicemen and women were exposed while in the line of duty through bases, ships and shipyards.
Those working with these materials were considered the first wave of asbestos exposure. This wave of exposure often impacted blue collar workers, who at the time, were mostly men.
The second wave of exposure occured when asbestos fibers were brought home on the worker's clothing. Their families were exposed when handling and washing the asbestos covered items.
While no longer used in those products, asbestos is still present in many older homes and public buildings.
From 2001 to 2010 the five states with the highest number of mesothelioma deaths were California, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, and Texas.
While the last asbestos mine in the United States closed in 2002, asbestos and asbestos materials are still imported into the country on a daily basis. From 2006-2014 the US imported 8.2 million pounds of raw asbestos, as well as hundreds of shipments of hazardous asbestos waste and products, into the country.
What Can Be Done to Prevent it?
While there is no cure for mesothelioma the best practice is regular health checks. If your loved one worked in a career field where they may have come in contact with asbestos, it is important to be extra vigilant.
Mesothelioma can be diagnosed after abnormalities are found via X-Ray or PET scan.
How is this Legal?
Yes, a known carcinogen is still legal in the United States.
Beginning in the 1970s when asbestos was scientifically linked to cancer, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established an emissions standard under the Clean Air Act. A year later that regulation was followed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) occupational standard that grew increasingly strict.
Those culminated in the EPA’s issuance of their intent to regulate asbestos with the Toxic Substance Control Act in 1979. Unfortunately that legislation never came to pass.
Commercial lobbyists who stood to gain from use of asbestos pressured the US government to halt what would have been monumental change: a complete ban of asbestos. Among those profiting from use of asbestos was the Canadian government. In fact, the majority of the asbestos used in America was imported from our neighbors to the north.
In 1989 the EPA announced it would order a phase out and ban of more than 90% of products containing asbestos. This too crumbled once there was pushback from the asbestos industry. The two sides went to court in 1991 when the U.S. Court for the FIfth Circuit threw out most of the EPA’s proposed regulations.
The banning of asbestos was revisited in 2002 when Sens. Patty Murray, D- Wash., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced a bill to ban asbestos but the industry and their congressional allies again blocked the bill. In 2007 a bill called the Ban Asbestos in America Act passed the Senate unanimously only to then be squashed in the House, thus never even making it to the President.
“It’s reprehensible that Congress has allowed the man-made asbestos crisis to continue,” says Linda Reinstein, president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), which represents asbestos victims. “Each year, up to 15,000 Americans die from preventable mesothelioma and other asbestos-caused diseases and imports still continue.“
Take Action Today
Learn more about how you can reduce you and your loved one’s risk at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance.