July 5th is Action Mesothelioma Day. This campaign is run by the British Lung Foundation to help find a cure for malignant mesothelioma by raising awareness and fundraising. Mesothelioma is an incurable cancer linked to asbestos exposure.
Despite being banned in the UK since 1999, we have one of the highest mesothelioma rates in the world, and more research is needed to combat this deadly disease.
What is mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer which usually affects older people and is caused by asbestos exposure. The cancer occurs when asbestos fibres make their way into the lining of the lungs, stomach or heart, resulting in shortness of breath and chest pain.
The most common types are pleural mesothelioma, which affects the lungs, and peritoneal mesothelioma, which occurs in the abdomen.
Who is at risk?
There are several groups at risk from mesothelioma. According to Cancer UK, exposure to asbestos in the workplace causes 94% of cases in the UK.
Shipbuilders and people serving on ships
Ships that were built pre-1980 often contained parts made with asbestos and asbestos insulation. People who worked in the shipbuilding industry before 1980, or who carry out maintenance and repairs on these ships, are at high risk of getting an asbestos-related disease.
Armed Forces personnel who served on asbestos-laden ships also risked ingesting asbestos. Veterans who develop mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos during their years of service can claim compensation from the MOD through the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme.
Builders and construction workers
People who work in the construction industry, including builders, carpenters and plumbers, may have been exposed to asbestos in buildings built before 1999.
Examples of buildings likely to contain asbestos include:
- Residential properties
- Power stations
People who have worked in buildings that contain asbestos, had family members who worked with asbestos or lived near an asbestos factory can also develop mesothelioma.
What are the symptoms of mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma presents various symptoms depending on the type of cancer (pleural or peritoneal). With pleural mesothelioma, symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Night sweats
- Fluid around the lungs
- Weight loss
Peritoneal mesothelioma can present as:
- Stomach swelling
- Stomach pain
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle weakness
- Fluid around the abdomen
What causes mesothelioma?
The main cause of this cancer is exposure to asbestos, due to widespread use in the building and construction industry before it was banned by the government.
While the risk of exposure is now significantly lower than it used to be, asbestos is still found in older buildings. In 2018, it was discovered that nine out of 10 hospitals contained the harmful material. Ingesting asbestos fibres causes damages to the lungs, and over time, tumours grow.
Treatment for people with mesothelioma
Unfortunately, mesothelioma is not typically diagnosed until the disease is at an advanced stage. This means treatment focusses on palliative care, which includes symptom control, pain management and prolonging life.
Both chemotherapy and radiotherapy may be offered to shrink or slow the cancer. Some people may also undergo surgery to remove tumours. Others may have procedures to remove fluid from their lungs and prevent further lung damage.
Research is ongoing throughout the UK to tackle the problem of mesothelia.
The primary aim of modern research is to:
- Understand the genetic changes behind the disease
- Find new treatments
- Improve existing treatments
- Improve the quality of life of people with the cancer
Imperial College London has set up a National Centre for Mesothelioma Research to create new procedures and better diagnostic tools. The British Lung Foundation has also created a research network to speed up the delivery of treatments and diagnostics. Mesothelioma UK has a research fund for studies and clinical trials.
Where can you get support?
People with mesothelioma can get emotional, practical and financial support to help them deal with the effects of the disease. The British Lung Foundation’s support page provides a list of resources relating to mesothelioma for anyone affected.
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