Asbestos exposure has been attributed as a root cause for many types of health complications, with some being more serious than others. Many of these complications affect the respiratory system and can impact breathing and lung function. Because mesothelioma symptoms may be similar (i.e. chronic cough, chest pain, or difficulty breathing) to other respiratory ailments, it is important to discuss specific situations with mesothelioma doctors, especially for those who have a known asbestos-exposure history. Specialists like Dr. Sugarbaker and others can help make an accurate mesothelioma diagnosis.
Though asbestos was once considered a “miracle mineral”, since the days of the Holy Roman Empire it has been apparent that asbestos causes severe pulmonary problems. Even centuries ago, naturalists like Pliny the Elder noted that the slaves who mined asbestos suffered from “sickness of the lungs” and died at an early age.
However, asbestos diseases really didn’t garner attention until the early to mid 1900s, when asbestos use was at its peak and more and more individuals were getting sick due to exposure to this toxic mineral, which was primarily used as insulation but was also added to myriad other manufactured goods including a wide variety of building products.
Though researchers don’t fully understand why some individuals develop asbestos diseases and others do not, evidence points to the fact that length and intensity of exposure may have something to do with it. However, experts agree that no amount of asbestos exposure is safe.
Life with an Asbestos Disease
Because they affect the lungs and inhibit breathing, living with an asbestos disease can be quite difficult. Both asbestosis and mesothelioma patients will require certain procedures or treatments that serve to lessen symptoms of the disease and aim to improve quality of life. Unfortunately, however, both diseases eventually claim the lives of their victims.
Most individuals who’ve developed asbestos diseases were exposed to the mineral without knowing it was toxic. Though many employers knew of the dangers of asbestos, many continued to use it without regard for employees’ health and never provided masks or other gear that may have prevented inhalation of asbestos fibers. This negligence has negatively impacted not only the lives of thousands of victims but their loved ones as well.
Mesothelioma is a rare but aggressive form of asbestos cancer for which the only known cause is exposure to asbestos. It affects about 2,000 to 3,000 Americans each year. Like asbestosis, it can take as much as 50 years to be diagnosed because it has a long latency period. That means it remains silent in the body for decades, finally appearing via symptoms like cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, and fatigue.
Because asbestos exposure is the only cause of mesothelioma cancer, those individuals who exhibit these symptoms must be sure to inform their doctor of their past exposure. He will most likely order x-rays, MRIs, or CT scans to determine the presence of a tumor, which usually appears in the pleura – the lining of the lungs. The imaging tests will be followed by a biopsy, which can determine whether or not the tumor is malignant. Once a definitive diagnosis is made, the patient will meet with an oncologist or medical team to determine the best course of treatment.
Lung cancer, which is different than mesothelioma because it actually occurs in the lung tissue as opposed to the mesothelium, can also be attributed to asbestos exposure. There are general sub-classifications of lung cancer. These are small cell and non-small cell which are assigned based on how the cancer cells appear within the lung tissue. Each of these types has appeared in those exposed to asbestos.
Mesothelioma, while extremely rare, is still the most common malignancy associated with asbestos exposure. Pure lung cancers have also been connected with asbestos exposure, though it is also possible for mesothelioma to spread into the affected lung from the pleura or peritoneum. Lung cancers caused by asbestos exposure are known to be more common in those with other mitigating risk factors, including smoking.
Asbestosis, also known as diffuse pulmonary fibrosis, can take anywhere from 10-30 years to develop. That means those who are diagnosed with asbestosis may have been exposed to asbestos as much as 30 years before the disease is diagnosed.
Asbestosis is characterized by severe shortness of breath, which is generally the first symptom to appear. At first, this is only evident after exertion but may eventually happen even during rest. Other symptoms include tightness in the chest, dry cough, loss of appetite, fatigue, and – when the disease reaches an advanced stage – clubbing of the fingers.
This disease is generally diagnosed by means of a chest x-ray which can show scarring, as well as testing with more sophisticated imaging including MRIs or CT scans. If asbestosis is suspected, an open lung biopsy will most likely be performed.
If you are experiencing such symptoms and have worked with asbestos in the past, it is essential that you inform your doctor as to your history with this toxic mineral. It may help speed a diagnosis.
There is currently no cure for asbestosis but doctors can suggest treatments and other procedures that can serve to lessen its symptoms and make patients more comfortable. It is also essential that those who have asbestosis stop smoking immediately. Smokers with asbestosis are much more likely to develop mesothelioma – asbestos-caused cancer.
Cancers of the human body each have their own symptoms, risk factors, causes, and treatments. This section is a general primer on cancers other than mesothelioma.
Emphysema may be a pre-cursor to smoking-related ailments such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis.
MedicineNet.com - Asbestos Related Disorders