Cancer Awareness: Mesothelioma gets its day in the spotlight

September 26th – Mesothelioma Awareness Day

Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that is only caused by exposure to asbestos. There are between 2,400 and 2,800 people diagnosed with mesothelioma in the United States each year. Most mesothelioma patients do not receive a diagnosis until the later stages of the disease leading to poor prognosis. The average life expectancy for mesothelioma patients is between 12 to 21 months.

Due to the poor prognosis and difficulty diagnosing the disease, prevention is the only guaranteed way to beat this cancer. With only one known cause of the disease, banning asbestos in the United States should be a high priority. The still legal asbestos is a microscopic naturally occurring fibrous material that is a known carcinogen.
Asbestos is no longer mined in the United States but is still imported on a regular basis. Federal law requires that newly-manufactured products contain no more than one percent asbestos. Prior to this regulation asbestos was widely used in homes, schools, and most building materials. Even today asbestos is found in everyday objects – the toxin was recently found in children’s crayons. A child exposed to asbestos is 3.5 times more likely than a 25-year-old to develop mesothelioma.


The overall use of asbestos in the United States has decreased in recent years. However, the dangers are still real and prevalent.The toxin was widely used in decades past as insulation, in floor and ceiling tiles, and pipes among other products. Many homes and schools built prior to the 1970s still have asbestos in them. The apex of mesothelioma has not been seen yet due to the latency period of the disease. Mesothelioma typically does not develop until 20 to 40 years after asbestos exposure.

The toxin becomes dangerous when the asbestos dust is inhaled and embeds in the lining of the organs. There are four types of mesothelioma – pleural, peritoneal, pericardial, and testicular. Of the four types of the disease, pleural mesothelioma is the most common occurring in the lining of the lungs. The primary symptoms of pleural mesothelioma affect the respiratory system, including shortness of breath, or the thoracic (chest) cavity, resulting in chest pain.

Those most at risk of developing the disease are men who traditionally worked with the toxin as a building material. Currently there are OSHA standards to keep employees safe when working with or around asbestos but decades ago there were no such guidelines.

Those who work or worked as electricians, plumbers, boilermakers, carpenters, mechanics, machinists and other trades could have been exposed to asbestos. Additionally, if you lived with someone who was regularly exposed to asbestos and washed or handled their clothing, you could be at risk for second hand exposure.
Second hand exposure is the current wave of mesothelioma patients. This type of exposure is commonly the way that women were exposed to asbestos. Heather Von St. James is an 11 year survivor of mesothelioma. She was exposed to asbestos as a child when she would wear her father’s coat which was covered in asbestos dust.The face of mesothelioma is starting to change – no longer is it solely impacting senior men.

Heather has since dedicated her life to advocating for the complete ban of asbestos. You can join Heather and others fighting for the end of mesothelioma in a tweet chat on Mesothelioma Awareness Day, September 26, at 12 p.m. EST. using the hashtag #ENDMESO.

Brook Spencer
Community Outreach Director
Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance