Mesothelioma: Separating Myth from Truth

Doctor Putting a Magnifying Glass over a Body Diagram

There are many misconceptions about mesothelioma, mostly because the disease is so rare and little information is readily available. While the U.S. government has severely restricted the use of asbestos — the cancer’s leading cause — misunderstandings about this toxic mineral can lead to harmful exposures. We put together a list of the most common misconceptions. Hopefully, these will answer some questions about treatment, diagnosis and how the cancer develops.

Mesothelioma Myths

Myth: It’s a lung cancer.

Fact: Although pleural mesothelioma forms on the outer lining of the lungs or inner lining of the chest wall, it is not considered a lung cancer. Doctors who don’t specialize in asbestos-related conditions sometimes confuse mesothelioma for lung cancer, leading to a misdiagnosis.

Myth: It’s caused by smoking.

Fact: Smoking does not cause this cancer, nor does it increase your risk of developing it if you’ve been exposed to asbestos. However, smokers have a much higher chance of developing lung cancer if they have also been exposed to asbestos.

Myth: It only affects the lungs.

Fact: While approximately 75 percent of all mesotheliomas develop in the chest, the disease has several other types. Peritoneal mesothelioma, the second most common type accounting for 10 to 20 percent of all cases, forms on the lining of the abdomen. Far rarer forms include pericardial mesothelioma, which develops on the heart lining, and testicular mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the testicles.

Myth: Only those extensively exposed to asbestos should worry.

Fact: Medical studies have proven that even an extremely small amount of asbestos exposure can cause this type of cancer. More frequently, patients develop mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions after being exposed to high levels of asbestos over a long span of time.

Myth: The cancer is contagious.

Fact: Some cancers are hereditary, but none are contagious. Mesothelioma is neither contagious nor hereditary. However, family members can develop it as the result of secondary exposure, which typically occurs when a loved one brings home asbestos fibers on their body or clothes after working around asbestos.

Myth: It only develops in the elderly.

Fact: Although the average age of a mesothelioma patient is 60, younger adults and children can develop the cancer. Research has indicated the average diagnosis age is dropping due to an increase of secondary exposure incidences.

Misconceptions About Asbestos

Myth: Asbestos is banned in the U.S.

Fact: The negative health effects of asbestos prompted the U.S. government to ban all new uses for the material in 1989, but it remains legal for some applications. Asbestos-containing products not banned in the U.S. include clothing, brake and clutch components for automobiles and a wide range of construction materials.

Myth: Companies that manufactured and sold asbestos products were unaware of the dangers of asbestos exposure.

Fact: Documents from asbestos litigation have revealed that some of the biggest names in the asbestos industry orchestrated a massive cover-up to hide asbestos health risks from the public. Industry leaders often claimed they had no knowledge of asbestos health risks before 1964, yet evidence shows some companies were hiding study results showing high rates of disease in asbestos workers as early as 1929.

Myth: If you find asbestos in your home, you should remove it as soon as possible.

Fact: In most cases, asbestos-containing materials in good condition don’t pose any health hazards and should be left alone. However, if a material is damaged or could be disturbed in the future, removal or another action may be required. Asbestos removal should only be completed by certified asbestos contractors.

Myth: Mesothelioma is the only disease caused by asbestos.

Fact: Breathing asbestos can lead to a variety of cancerous and noncancerous diseases, including lung cancer and asbestosis. Progressive conditions like asbestosis, pleural plaques and pleural thickening are not cancerous, but may cause pain and make breathing increasingly difficult. Other asbestos-related conditions include pleuritis, pleural effusion, atelectasis and COPD.

Myth: Asbestos is the only cause of mesothelioma.

Fact: While exposure to asbestos is the most clearly defined cause of mesothelioma, researchers have identified several other factors that may increase a person’s risk for developing the cancer. Another class of mineral fibers called zeolites may also cause mesothelioma. There are some reports of increased mesothelioma risk after a person receives radiation therapy for other cancers. Another potential cause is SV40, a virus that contaminated millions of polio vaccines from 1955 to 1963.

Myth: Asbestos is a single mineral.

Fact: There are six distinct types of asbestos that can be classified as serpentine or amphibole. Chrysotile, or white asbestos, is the only serpentine form. Named for its curly and flexible fibers, it makes up about 95 percent of the asbestos in the U.S. The remaining types are amphiboles, which have thin and rigid fibers. All forms of asbestos can cause mesothelioma, but some studies show amphiboles are particularly harmful. The needle-like amphibole fibers penetrate soft tissue and stay in the lungs longer than chrysotile.

Myth: Masks can protect you from asbestos.

Fact: Not all masks and respirators can protect people from harmful exposures. Most paper dust masks are insufficient at filtering asbestos from the air, so experts use a half face respirator fitted with a purple HEPA filter specifically designed for asbestos. Even these masks can fail if they don’t fit properly. In addition, secondary exposure can occur in family members if workers bring home asbestos on their clothes, tools, hair or work boots.

Misconceptions Surrounding a Mesothelioma Diagnosis

Myth: Mesothelioma only develops in men.

Fact: Mesothelioma develops in women, too. When asbestos exposure was at its highest during the mid-20th century, men dominated the industrial working class. At the time, many industrial jobs existed where asbestos exposure was prevalent. Because a large portion of mesothelioma cases are the result of exposure in industrial settings, men are the predominant gender diagnosed. On average, men are four times more likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma than women.

Myth: Early diagnosis is impossible.

Fact: Due to the long latency period associated with this cancer, many patients do not experience symptoms until decades after exposure to asbestos. Researchers are continually developing new diagnostic methods involving blood and genetic tests that lengthen patient survival rates through early diagnosis.

Mesothelioma Treatment Myths

Myth: The prognosis is always poor.

Fact: While there is no cure for asbestos-related cancer, doctors and researchers have established treatment plans that reduce symptoms and work toward extending patients’ lives. Survival rates have increased in recent years. In one study, as much as 30 percent of patients diagnosed early lived more than five years after diagnosis. Early detection can play a vital role in improving prognosis.

Myth: It’s an untreatable cancer.

Fact: A number of different treatment options are available to patients — even those who don’t qualify for surgery. Doctors continually develop and improve treatments in order to make them more effective against the disease. Clinical trials also explore new treatment options that search for a cure and ways to improve the quality of life for mesothelioma patients.

Myth: Treatment requires chemotherapy.

Fact: Although the current gold standard of treatment involves some combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, this plan isn’t best for everyone. If a patient doesn’t qualify for aggressive treatments like surgery or chemotherapy, or chooses to forego them, there are always other options. Rich D., a two-year survivor of pleural mesothelioma, underwent lung-sparing surgery but decided against chemotherapy and radiation. With the help of the herb graviola, Rich has prevented the cancer from returning. Many other survivors have found success with complementary and alternative treatments.

Misconceptions About Your Legal Rights

Myth: Asbestos lawsuits are expensive.

Fact: Filing an asbestos lawsuit is low-risk because most attorneys work on a contingency fee basis. This means if the lawsuit is successful, you will pay a percentage of the award to your attorney. If not, you pay nothing. Be sure to discuss this percentage with your attorney before moving forward with a claim.

Myth: It takes too long to receive compensation.

Fact: While the legal process could take several months or longer, patients in poor health can request to have their case expedited. This can speed up the process, but patients must provide sufficient evidence that asbestos caused their health complications.

  1. Ahmed, I., Tipu, S. & Ishtiaq, S. (2013, November). Malignant Mesothelioma. Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905399/
  2. Dodson, R. and Hammar, S. (2011). Asbestos: Risk Assessment, Epidemiology, and Health Effects. Boca Raton: Taylor & Francis.
  3. National Cancer Institute. (2013, December 12). General Information About Malignant Mesothelioma. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/malignantmesothelioma/patient/page1
  4. National Cancer Institute. (2009, May 1). Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/asbestos

Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His most recent experience is in researching and writing about asbestos litigation issues and asbestos-related conditions like mesothelioma. If you have a story idea for Tim, please email him at tpovtak@asbestos.com

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