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There is no early or routine screening test — such as a mammogram or colonoscopy — for malignant pleural mesothelioma, the rare and aggressive cancer caused by an exposure to asbestos.

Yet there is something equally important and just as valuable when it comes to the critical, early detection that can give seniors a fighting chance against this insidious disease.

It’s an awareness of symptoms that often mirror those of less serious illnesses. It’s called vigilance.

No one ever expects to be diagnosed with mesothelioma, which strikes only a small fraction of people compared to those hit by lung cancer or breast cancer each year. But it happens.

Anyone with a past occupational exposure to asbestos should pay close attention to typical flu-like symptoms if they don’t dissipate normally. Anyone who worked in shipyards, the U.S. Navy, manufacturing, oil or construction should be aware.

Those early symptoms could include:

  • A dry, hacking cough that persists
  • Tightness or pain in the chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unexplained weight loss

Together, those could mean a chronic inflammatory condition, or pleural plaques — a fibrous thickening of the lining around the lungs. Although these plaques are not cancerous, they likely signal a significant past exposure to asbestos and an increased risk of mesothelioma in the future.

Ask your doctor for an X-ray to start the process. An MRI or CT scan could follow if the doctor doesn’t like the results. It might be something for your physician to monitor regularly, making sure that if mesothelioma does develop, you catch it early when it is most treatable.

Too often, the early symptoms are ignored and the cancer is not diagnosed until it has metastasized, which limits the potential treatment options and likely shortens your chance of survival.

A typical mesothelioma diagnosis comes with a 6-12 month lifespan.  Although it develops very slowly, mesothelioma is aggressive once it begins to spread.

Mesothelioma has a latency period of 20-50 years from the time of first exposure to asbestos before it is typically diagnosed. When the tiny asbestos fibers are unknowingly inhaled, they can become lodged in the thin lining around the lungs, where they eventually cause scaring.

The scaring leads to abnormalities that can become a variety of serious health issues, including asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma cancer.

“Don’t sit at home and try to be a hero if these symptoms don’t go away in a couple weeks after taking antibiotics,” cautions thoracic surgeon and mesothelioma specialist Dr. Rodney Landreneau at the Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. “Go see your doctor and start the process. If we catch it early enough, it’s something we can really help people with. It can make a huge difference.”

Although many oncologists rarely see mesothelioma and struggle to treat it effectively, the specialty centers now have a multidisciplinary approach that combines surgery, chemotherapy and radiation that can lead to long-term survival.

The key is catching it early enough, and that comes from awareness to the symptoms.

This article was submitted to At Home Care Company by Tim Povtak.

Tim Povtak is a content writer for the Mesothelioma Center and Asbestos.com, an informational source for mesothelioma patients and families.