Malignant mesothelioma is a form of cancer attributed solely to asbestos exposure. According to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics, around 2,500 people die each year from this aggressive disease, a figure that shows no sign of abating until at least the end of this decade.
The high incidence of occupational exposure to asbestos, from the 1950s until its UK ban in 1999, means that mortality rates have increased considerably over these decades. Asbestos was a huge and powerful industry that failed to provide information and training for its workers – on the contrary, their rights to work in a healthy and safe environment were completely ignored in many cases.
Two main types of malignant mesothelioma exist, so in what circumstances does the disease usually develop, and what are some of the symptoms?
When asbestos fibres are inhaled, they can become lodged within the outer lining of the lungs – a protective membrane called the pleura. Because asbestos fibres are sharp and brittle in nature, the body finds it difficult to expel them and genetic damage slowly begins to occur in the surrounding cells.
Although no immediate indications of ill-health are felt by the victim, several decades later they often begin to experience shortness of breath, a chronic cough, and other distressing symptoms including extreme fatigue.
Once medical help is sought, it is often too late to treat the disease successfully as the cancer is already at an advanced stage. This can result in a very short life-expectancy from the time of diagnosis – a devastating situation for the individual and their loved ones.
Although relatively rare when compared with pleural mesothelioma, malignant peritoneal mesothelioma occurs when asbestos fibres are ingested and become lodged within the abdominal lining, or peritoneum.
Symptoms include abdominal pain and swelling, loss of appetite, nausea, anaemia and fatigue. The disease rarely spreads to the lungs, but has been known to spread to other abdominal areas.
Successful surgical intervention for a patient in Australia
As with pleural mesothelioma the prognosis is generally only around a year, but a patient in Australia has recently successfully undergone surgery for peritoneal mesothelioma.
Galy O’Connor was reportedly exposed to asbestos during her teenage years when she worked in a paint-mixing factory, but had no idea that her health had been at risk for over 30 years.
She commented on the situation that she faced prior to having surgery:
“It’s a curable cancer. But a dangerously long waiting list, and a refusal from the NSW Government to fund surgery places, meant that I’d likely become terminally ill.”
Mrs O’Connor petitioned the New South Wales Government to clear bed spaces so that she and other sufferers could be treated by a specialist surgeon. The petition was signed by more than 100,000 people, and as a result around 25 other patients will be able to undergo life-saving surgery by the end of this year.