There is no early, widely accepted screening test -- like a mammogram or colonoscopy -- for malignant pleural mesothelioma, the rare and aggressive cancer caused primarily by exposure to asbestos.
But there is something just as valuable when it comes to critical, early detection that can give patients a fighting chance against this insidious disease.
It's called vigilance: An awareness of symptoms that often mirror those of less serious illnesses. Anyone with a background that includes a past occupational exposure to asbestos in the manufacturing, oil and construction industries, or the U.S. Navy and shipyards, should pay close attention to typical flu-like symptoms if they don't dissipate normally.
"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," says renowned mesothelioma specialist and thoracic surgeon Rodney Landreneau, M.D., director of the Ochsner Cancer Institute. "Don't just blow off the symptoms. Make sure your doctor doesn't either. Ask for an X-ray to start. It could be something more serious."
What Are the Early Symptoms of Mesothelioma?
The early symptoms of mesothelioma could include:
- Shortness of breath
- Dry, hacking cough
- Unexplained weight loss
- Tightness or pain in the chest
It could mean a chronic inflammatory condition, also known as 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.
It's something for you and your doctor to monitor over time, making sure that if mesothelioma does develop, you catch it early through a series of diagnostic procedures now in place at Ochsner.
"If we catch it early enough, it's something we can really help people with. It can make a huge difference. Mesothelioma is not just a death sentence anymore," Landreneau said. "There have been wonderful advancements in treating this disease in recent years."
Landreneau Brings His Experience to Louisiana
Landreneau joined the Ochsner team in 2013 and brought plans to create a mesothelioma specialty center, filling a void in the state of Louisiana where the mesothelioma incidence rate is well above the national average.
Shortly after arriving, Landreneau became the first specialist in Louisiana to start treating mesothelioma patients with the highly effective hyperthermic chemotherapy/surgical debulking combination.
One of his goals is raising awareness to the disease. Although the commercial use of asbestos as a building material has declined dramatically over the last 30 years, the long latency period (20-50 years) between asbestos exposure and diagnosis means mesothelioma incidence now is starting to peak.
Landreneau wants Ochsner to be ready.
"There are things we can do now for patients to help them. If you have an industrial background, take it to heart, and if those symptoms don't go away, go see a doctor," he said.
"Don't just sit at home. Be aware of what's going on."