Changing the Stigma Around Mesothelioma

Awareness // November 1, 2017

Mesothelioma has often been met by a great deal of confusion and skepticism, and has even become the unfortunate subject of running jokes on social media. Because of the many infomercials with lawyers urging asbestos victims and their families to call today and they might receive financial compensation, many people don’t take the disease seriously or see it as anything more than a money-making scheme.

The sad fact of the matter, though, is mesothelioma is a devastating cancer. Though it is rare, it has caused over 42,000 deaths in the United States just between 1999 and 2015. With better awareness around the disease and asbestos, the mineral that causes it, hopefully more people will see beyond the lawyer commercials and recognize the real people beyond the ad who are actually affected by the disease.

What is Mesothelioma?

One of the big problems that has led to a stigma around mesothelioma is the lack of understanding around the disease itself. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that’s diagnosed in about 3,000 people each year in the United States. It is caused by exposure to asbestos, and develops very slowly over the course of 10 to even 50 years.

Asbestos is a natural mineral that was an important resource for many industries around the world – until its health risks became widely known. Its ability to resist extremely high temperatures and most chemical reactions made it ideal for inclusion in a wide array of products, from insulation and roofing to boilers and brake pads. Any product or material that would come into contact with heat was likely to contain asbestos, especially from the 1930s to the 1970s.

Throughout this time, the United States alone was consuming thousands of tons of asbestos, with an all-time high of 803,000 tons in 1973. But even in the 1920s, researchers were confirming the health concerns around exposure to the mineral’s fibers. The durability of asbestos and why it became so popular is just what makes it so deadly. Manipulating asbestos-containing materials through work, or seeing any damage from old age, renovation, or intense storms, can result in the stiff fibers becoming airborne. The fibers are invisible to the human eye and can become heavily concentrated in the air, leading to inhalation or ingestion.

Though our bodies are able to break down many foreign toxins, the asbestos fibers are too durable and instead become stuck in the lining of the lungs. In rarer cases, the fibers may also become lodged in the lining of the abdomen or even the heart. Over time, the fibers cause irritation and scarring that can eventually develop into tumors.

Because the cancer takes so long to develop and present with symptoms that can be linked to a number of common illnesses, mesothelioma often isn’t diagnosed until it’s already progressed to a later stage. Though mesothelioma is known for being difficult to treat at any stage, by stage 4 patients have very limited treatment options and an even more grim prognosis. At this stage, patients face an average life expectancy of 12 months. Overall, only 33% of mesothelioma patients survive a year after diagnosis, and only 9% survive five years.

In the face of such poor odds, more people need to be aware of the dangers of asbestos. There is no cure for mesothelioma, but it is completely preventable. Better awareness and education are absolutely necessary to help change these statistics and prevent further pain and suffering.

Why All the Commercials?

It’s unfortunate that these commercials come off much the same: some lawyer asking if you’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma, with no real helpful information about the disease, the dangers of asbestos or even a victim’s legal rights. It’s understandable why so many feel skeptical of the ads and wonder if the disease is anything more than a scam. These commercials are poorly done and come off as rather insensitive.

Truthfully, though, these commercials are not without purpose. Mesothelioma victims are often eligible to receive financial compensation for a number of reasons. Of course, these patients would never knowingly or purposefully inhale or ingest asbestos, but many of the companies that used asbestos in their products or buildings were well aware of the dangers (or they should have been!). Workers and their families faced exposure because of this, and companies that did so should be held liable.

Any financial compensation is also important for trying to cover expensive medical bills. Any cancer diagnosis leads to high medical bills between diagnostic tests, treatment itself, after care, and even secondary costs like travel during treatment. For many mesothelioma patients, it’s difficult to even find a mesothelioma specialist or a treatment center equipped to treat the disease in their area, which can lead to high travel and lodging expenses on top of everything else.

At the same time, patients typically cannot continue working as they undergo aggressive treatment or simply from the symptoms of the disease. Shortness of breath, fatigue and pain are just some of the symptoms that can make it difficult for patients to work. Financial assistance to help cope with the loss of a paycheck, while facing larger bills, can make a huge difference in their quality of life.

Changing the Conversation

The commercials aside, there are real people all over the world being affected by this and other asbestos-related diseases every day. While asbestos is still not banned in the U.S. and its use is even flourishing in some parts of the world today, exposure will continue happening and put more lives at risk.

On a global scale, researchers have estimated more than 38,000 people die from mesothelioma each year. At the same time, the World Health Organization estimates 125 million people are exposed to asbestos at work each year, which doesn’t include potential family members facing secondhand exposure or others exposed from asbestos materials lurking in their home. Asbestos and mesothelioma are a global issue, and need to be taken seriously.

Together, we can all help advocate for this deadly disease and a ban on the toxin that causes it. Rather than spreading memes and jokes insinuating mesothelioma isn’t real or calling out the commercials, we can use that energy toward truly making a difference for patients and their loved ones.