In honor of Mesothelioma Awareness Day (September 26), I am choosing to be a voice for the victims – to educate others about mesothelioma, a disease that takes thousands of lives every year. With education comes awareness. With awareness comes action. With action comes change.

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a set of six naturally-occurring (in rock and soil) silicate minerals. Once lauded for its versatility, it is now classified as a known human carcinogen, because of its association with mesothelioma. Due to its fiber strength and heat resistance, asbestos has been utilized in many construction projects, not only as a fire retardant but also as insulation for buildings. It can be found in a multitude of building materials such as floor tiles and shingles, but can also be discovered in automobile clutch, brake, and transmission parts, heat-resistant fabrics, packaging, steam pipes, and gaskets.

Asbestiform tremolite, CaliforniaAsbestiform tremolite, California

Due to the fact that it is linked with mesothelioma, one would assume its use would be banned, but that is not the case. Though it has been banned in over 50 countries, the U.S. is not one of them. On average, 30 million pounds of asbestos are being put to use within the country. This puts many citizens at risk as asbestos remains the leading cause of occupational cancer in the United States.

On July 12, 1989, the EPA issued a final rule banning most asbestos-containing products. In 1991, this regulation was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. As a result of this decision, only a few asbestos-containing products remain banned.

Let’s break it down further to see the actual impact of this decision. The EPA estimates that there are asbestos containing materials in most of the nations approximately 107,000 primary and secondary schools and 733,000 public and commercial buildings. This year alone, 10,000 Americans will die of asbestos-related diseases such as lung cancer or mesothelioma, and 200,000 people will be living with asbestos.

What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer affecting the membrane lining of the lungs, heart, and abdomen. The only known cause of the disease is exposure to asbestos. Making a correct mesothelioma diagnosis is quite difficult for doctors due to the fact that the disease often presents itself along with other symptoms that mimic other common ailments.

Graphic from
Graphic from

There is currently no known cure for mesothelioma, but treatments such as surgery and chemotherapy have been known to improve the typical mesothelioma prognosis.

For those affected, asking the question, “How long do I have to live?” can be terrifying. It is a hard question to answer, not only because everyone is different, but also because of the characteristics of the cancer itself; it is quite unpredictable.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the prognosis for this disease has been quite dismal. Mesothelioma commonly sits dormant in the body for 20-50 years after initial exposure to asbestos, making its detection quite difficult. Consequently, many affected are unable to detect the disease until its advanced stages.

Graphic from
Graphic from

The one-year survival rate for this disease rests at 40 percent. The five-year survival rate for people with this disease (a number that shows how many patients are still alive five years after diagnosis) is currently about 10 percent. Though low, this number is in fact much higher than it was several decades ago. There is hope for an increase with progress in the medical field.

What You Can Do to Protect Yourself

As the graphic above mentions, early detection is key to a more favorable prognosis. So how do you go about preventing this disease?

While there are really no typical screening processes in place as there are for things like breast cancer, some doctors recommend imaging tests (x-rays or CT scans) to search for changes in the lungs that could indicate mesothelioma or lung cancer. In has been noted that people living with mesothelioma often have high levels of osteopontin and soluble mesothelin-related peptides, also known as SMRPs. Blood tests for the aforementioned substances may eventually be quite useful in diagnosing this disease early on.

Above all else, one should know the symptoms and signs of mesothelioma. If detected, one should bring this up with their doctor immediately. Most people experience these symptoms for several months.

Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma (mesothelioma of the chest) can include:

  • Pain in the lower back or at the side of the chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fluid in the area around the lung
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss (without trying)
  • Trouble swallowing (feeling like food gets stuck)
  • Hoarseness
  • Swelling of the face and arms

Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma can include:

  • Abdominal (belly) pain
  • Swelling or fluid in the abdomen
  • Weight loss (without trying)
  • Nausea and vomiting

The Strength of a Survivor

In 2006, Cameron Von St. James and Heather Von St. James were just beginning to celebrate the birth of their baby girl, Lily, when they were caught off-guard; Heather was diagnosed with mesothelioma. She was told that she only had 15 months (456 days) left to live.

After considering her options, Heather opted in to a life-saving surgery that included the removal of her left lung. She is now “thriving more than ever,” according to her husband Cameron.

Being one of a few survivors, Heather’s family has now made it their mission to spread awareness of the disease that almost took Heather from them. It is a preventable disease that takes numerous innocent lives every year.

For more information on Heather’s journey, visit her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter, or check out her awareness page. To find out more about mesothelioma or the treatment options, check out


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