Aging is not always an easy process. There are doctors’ appointments and continually raising adult children, but it’s balanced out by the joy of watching grandkids mature before your very eyes. Adding a cancer diagnosis to the mix is not ideal, but it’s an unfortunate reality for some. In 2018 alone, an estimated 1.73 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States.
Cancer can impact anyone, regardless of age, race or gender, but some forms are more common in specific demographics. For seniors, mesothelioma cancer is one that victimizes them.
September 26 is Mesothelioma Awareness Day, and while many have heard of the disease, understanding what it means for you and your loved ones can be empowering and lifesaving.
What is Mesothelioma?
Over 2,000 Americans lose their lives from mesothelioma cancer every year. Of those who pass away from mesothelioma, 67 percent are between the ages of 65 and 84. The reason why mesothelioma impacts those of advanced age is because of its extremely long latency period; it often takes 20 to 50 years following asbestos exposure for the cancer to develop. There are three main forms of the disease; peritoneal, pericardial, and pleural. Pleural mesothelioma is the most common type and forms in the lining of the lungs.
Who’s Most likely to Develop the Cancer?
The cancer’s only known cause is through the inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers. Microscopic particles eventually become embedded in the lining of the lungs, heart, or abdomen where the cancer may later develop.
Asbestos was widely used in building materials throughout the United States from 1930 throughout the 1970s. The toxic mineral was popular due to its resistance to fire, heat, and electricity. As a result, asbestos can be found in wallpaper, cement, flooring, ceiling tile, radiators, paneling, piping and shingles.
Seniors who are most at-risk include those who worked in construction, plumbing, and car maintenance. Additionally, asbestos products were used in the military where service members were exposed while working on bases, ships and shipyards.
People who worked with asbestos-containing materials were considered the second wave of asbestos exposure, and should discuss their potential risk of developing mesothelioma with a medical professional.
Those impacted through their occupation were typically blue collar workers, who at the time, were mostly men. Statistics show more than 75 percent of mesothelioma deaths are men, and most are older than middle age - over 55 years old.
Unfortunately, when those men came home from work carrying asbestos fibers on their clothing they unknowingly exposed their wives and children to the carcinogen as well.. Papillary mesothelioma and cystic mesothelioma are more common in women than in men.
Symptoms of the Cancer
Symptoms are often dependent on where in the body the cancer develops, but its common symptoms also make the disease difficult to diagnose. Pleural mesothelioma often involves hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, and fluid buildup in the lungs. Pericardial mesothelioma can present itself with symptoms like an irregular heartbeat, chest pain, and coughing. Peritoneal mesothelioma, which develops in the abdominal cavity, manifests with low blood sugar, anemia, and a loss of appetite.
Unfortunately, because the symptoms associated with mesothelioma are so common, doctors may sometimes misdiagnose the disease as something more prevalent. Mesothelioma is often falsely diagnosed as lung cancer at first, and while one form of the cancer develops in the lining of the lungs the two diseases are not synonymous. Mistaking mesothelioma as lung cancer can lead to an ineffective treatment plan. If you believe you may have come into contact with asbestos fibers be persistent with your doctors, advocate for yourself and your health.
Does Age impact the Rate of Survival?
Being mindful of how your body changes as you get older is incredibly important. Younger patients do tend to have a better prognosis, regardless of diagnosis. Between 2008 and 2013, only 5.8 percent of mesothelioma patients over the age of 65 were five-year survivors. Older patients may have other health conditions that exacerbate the disease or hinder treatment.
Age is not the only factor impacting prognosis. Other factors include the location of the cancer. For example, peritoneal mesothelioma, which forms in the lining of the abdomen, has a slightly better prognosis than pleural.
How Can this Cancer be Prevented?
Although there is no cure for mesothelioma, regular health checks can help catch the disease in its early stages when it's the most treatable. Health monitoring is especially important for people who worked extensively in occupations where contact with asbestos-containing materials, or the mineral itself, was common.
An X-Ray or PET scan can be used to diagnose mesothelioma, but a biopsy procedure is needed to confirm the diagnosis.
As the Child Caregiver, What Can I do for My Parents?
Reading this might be a bit concerning for someone with a mother or father who is a proud Navy veteran or carpenter, but there is always hope. Your parent needs you to be there for them.
Discuss with them:
- If they think they have worked with asbestos
- Ask them how they’ve felt recently
- If they’ve been feeling any of the symptoms of mesothelioma
- Encourage them to have a discussion with their doctors
Talking with your parents about their health is not always comfortable, but opening the dialogue and being there to listen to their worries can be just the support they need.
My Parent Has Mesothelioma - What does that mean?
Hearing that your mother or father has mesothelioma is discouraging, but there are options. Talk with your parent(s) to see what their wishes are and include their cancer care team if they want to explore available treatment options. Discuss the possibility of clinical trials as well. For example, Keytruda has seen success increasing the life expectancy of mesothelioma patients in trials.
Depending on the specific case and prognosis, palliative care and grief counselors may be additional resources to seek out. Palliative care is meant to mitigate symptoms and improve a patient’s quality of life. Grief counseling can be used to help tend to the mental health of both the patient and caregiver. A counselor can help patients come to terms with their diagnosis, offer emotional support, discuss expectations, plan for end-of-life care, and support family members in the event their loved one passes.
Mesothelioma currently has no cure, so awareness efforts are imperative. In honor of Mesothelioma Awareness Day, take some time on September 26 to educate yourself about the disease and advocate for a complete ban of asbestos.