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Key Questions About mesothelioma You’ve Been Afraid To Ask, And Real Answers

Key Questions About mesothelioma You’ve Been Afraid To Ask, And Real Answers

Key questions

Q: What causes mesothelioma?

A: Exposure to asbestos is the main cause of mesothelioma. Very rarely, mesothelioma has been linked with previous radiotherapy to the chest.


Asbestos is the name of a group of naturally occurring minerals that are resistant to high temperatures and humidity.

It was used in many building products in Australia from  the 1940s until 1987. Since 2004, Australia has had a ban on

asbestos being sold, reused and/or imported. It is still present in many older buildings, so special precautions must be taken when renovating or demolishing. It has also been found in some recently imported products despite the ban.


People most likely to have been exposed to asbestos at work include asbestos miners and millers, asbestos cement manufacturing workers, laggers and insulators, builders, plumbers and electricians, automotive industry workers,

mechanics, transport workers (especially waterside workers), and textile workers. People who haven’t worked directly

with asbestos but have been exposed to it can also develop mesothelioma. These can include people cleaning work clothes with asbestos fibres on them or people disturbing asbestos during home renovations or maintenance.


It can take many years for mesothelioma to develop after a person is exposed to asbestos. This is called the latency period or interval – it is usually between 20 and 60 years (most commonly around 40 years) after exposure.






Q: Can I seek compensation?

A: People who develop mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure may be able to claim compensation. Start making notes and talking to family and friends about when you may have  been exposed to asbestos. It is important to get advice from an experienced lawyer as soon as possible after diagnosis.

See pages 62–67 to read more about seeking compensation.



Q: How common is mesothelioma?

A: Australia has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in  the world, with 732 Australians diagnosed in 2014. Of these, more than 93% had pleural mesothelioma, about 6% had peritoneal mesothelioma, and about 1% had a rarer type.2


Men are over three times more likely than women to be diagnosed with mesothelioma, probably because many cases have been caused by exposure to asbestos at work. Western Australia has the most cases per population due to past asbestos mining. Mesothelioma is more common in people over the age of 65, but can occur in younger people.







Q: What are the symptoms?

A: The first signs of mesothelioma are often vague and similar to other conditions. If you are concerned, see your general practitioner (GP). It may take some time to be diagnosed, as the symptoms may come and go, and more common conditions are likely to be investigated first. Let your GP know if you may have been exposed to asbestos in the past.


Symptoms will depend on where the mesothelioma has developed. Pleural mesothelioma may cause:


  • Shortness of  breath  (breathlessness)  – This common symptom usually feels worse with activity or when you are lying dow It is often caused by a build-up of fluid in the chest called pleural effusion (see Draining fluid, page 21).


  • Pain– This can occur in the chest around the ribs or in the shoulder. It may be sharp and stabbing, made worse by breathing in deeply, or dull and persis You may also have a change in skin sensation or sensitivity to touch.


  • Other general symptoms – Somepeople experience loss of appetite with weight loss, loss of muscle bulk, loss of energy, a persistent cough or a change in coughing Some people also experience night sweats.


Peritoneal mesothelioma may cause: abdominal pain;

a swollen abdomen; poor appetite, nausea and vomiting; night sweats or fever; and bowel or urinary problems.






Q: What can I expect after diagnosis?

A: You are likely to feel shocked and upset when told you may have mesothelioma. It’s common to have many questions and concerns about what the diagnosis will mean for you.



Depending on the impact of mesothelioma on your health, you may experience periods of relatively good health when symptoms are under control or less active. You may also experience periods when symptoms need more intensive treatment. For information about living with mesothelioma, see pages 56–61. For questions you may want to ask your doctor, see page 69.






Q: Which health professionals will I see?

general practitioner (GP) assists with treatment decisions and works with your specialist to provide ongoing care

respiratory physician*

specialises in diseases of the lungs; may investigate symptoms of pleural mesothelioma and suggest initial treatments


specialises in diseases of the digestive system; may investigate symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma and suggest initial treatments
radiologist* specialises in reading chest x-rays, CT scans and other scans
interventional radiologist* may drain fluid and remove tissue for diagnosis using CT scans as a guide
pathologist* examines cells and tissue under the microscope to determine the type and extent of mesothelioma

thoracic surgeon*

conducts some biopsy procedures and performs surgery to prevent and treat symptoms of pleural mesothelioma, including radical surgery
surgical oncologist/ general surgeon* performs surgery to prevent and treat symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma
medical oncologist* prescribes and coordinates drug therapies such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy and targeted therapy


A: If you have mesothelioma, you will be cared for by a range of health professionals who specialise in different aspects of your treatment. This is known as a multidisciplinary team (MDT) and may include some or all of the health professionals described in the table below.






radiation oncologist* prescribes and coordinates the course of radiotherapy
palliative or supportive medical specialist* manages pain and other symptoms to improve quality of life and wellbeing; usually works as part of a palliative care team
palliative care team (doctors, nurses and other health professionals) assist with control of symptoms such as pain, breathlessness, nausea and anxiety, as well as offering emotional and spiritual support
nurses and nurse care coordinator administer drugs and provide care, support and information throughout treatment
community nurses visit you at home to supervise treatment, assess needs, and liaise with your GP or MDT
dietitian recommends an eating plan to follow during and after treatment
physiotherapist, occupational therapist help with maintaining and restoring strength

and mobility during and after your treatment and may recommend equipment

social worker provides counselling and support, links to services and helps with practical issues
psychologist provides emotional support and strategies to help deal with the impact of the disease


Some people are diagnosed and treated in specialist centres  in major cities around Australia. To find out if there is a specialist unit near you, ask your doctor or call Cancer Council 13 11 20. If you live in a rural or regional area, or find it difficult to travel far, your GP can provide care and discuss further options with an MDT from a specialist centre.



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