Mesothelioma Cancer and Senior Citizens

Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer that often hits early in retirement after years of occupational exposure to toxic asbestos fibers. It strikes an estimated 3,000 people annually in the U.S.

U.S. Navy veterans, shipyard workers, and those who worked any number of blue-collar professions where asbestos products were used, are most at risk today. Seniors are especially vulnerable because of the long latency period (20-50 years) between exposure and diagnosis.

Early symptoms — a persistent dry cough, a shortness of breath, tightness in the chest — mirror those of less serious illnesses, often making it difficult to diagnose in the early stages when it is more treatable.

Pleural mesothelioma, the most common type, starts with the inhalation of the microscopic asbestos fibers. They become lodged in the lining around the lungs and eventually cause scaring, which can lead to mesothelioma, lung cancer or other asbestos-related disease.

Asbestos is the naturally occurring mineral that was used so extensively through much of the 20th century, despite its toxicity. It was coveted for its versatility, heat resistance and affordability. Its use has significantly reduced in recent decades, but it remains throughout the country in commercial and residential structures and myriad products built before 1980.

Find a Specialty Center

If diagnosed with mesothelioma, the most important move will be finding a specialty center where they treat it regularly and have access to the latest therapeutic advances.

The disease is so rare that many oncologists rarely see it and do not fully understand how to treat it. Finding a specialist is imperative.

A specialty center will explain the type of mesothelioma you have, cell type of your disease, and pinpoint the stage it is in. These are all factors that go into setting up an individualized, multidisciplinary mesothelioma treatment plan.

Standard Treatment Options:

  • Minimally invasive or aggressive surgery

  • Chemotherapy

  • Radiation

Newer Treatment Options:

  • Immunotherapy

  • Gene Therapy

  • Photodynamic Therapy

Specialty centers often will work with a local oncologist and tailor treatment to limit any long-distance travel you may need to do. They also will help find a clinical trial, where the latest therapies are being tested, often with impressive results.

Military veterans who are part of the VA health care system are fortunate they often can get a referral to see Dr. Abraham Lebenthal at the VA Boston Healthcare or Dr. Robert Cameron at the West Los Angeles VA. They are two of finest mesothelioma specialists, but also part of the VA System.

Once You Find Your Specialist

  • Ask questions to make sure you understand all your options.

  • Include your family and friends to help you.

  • Surround yourself with positive people.

  • Take an integrative approach, which includes treating your mind and body beyond traditional medicine.

  • Find a support group, where you can talk with others with the same diagnosis. It will take away some of the isolation you may feel.

Although the latency period is lengthy, time becomes critical once the disease takes hold. Don't delay if you've been diagnosed. And even if you just suspect something is wrong — and you've worked with asbestos — go see a doctor and ask for an X-ray.

Patient advocates at The Mesothelioma Center can explain what to do, regardless of where you live. They can set up an initial consultation and even make travel arrangements if necessary.


Tim Povtak is a content writer for the Mesothelioma Center and