More than two in three UK adults are unable to name one symptom of mesothelioma, according to a recent online survey. The figures are all the more disappointing because the poll involved more than 2,000 people aged over 45, a group considered most likely to be at potential risk of asbestosis disease.

The online survey also found that fewer than one in five (17 per cent) could name just one symptom of mesothelioma, and only 6 per cent knew two symptoms.

The legacy of Britain’s widespread use of asbestos fibres as insulation, fireproofing and material strengthener until the late 1970s and early 1980s continues to be reported almost daily in the local and national press. Many cases highlight the tragic stories of men and women diagnosed with late stage cancer who simply didn’t realise that an increasing difficulty in catching their breath or a loss of appetite were actually asbestosis symptoms and not a ‘touch of flu’.

The issue of limited or even non-existent asbestos awareness can still cause sudden and unexpected devastation in the lives of many ordinary people three decades after the first asbestos ban was introduced in the UK.

Half of all occupational cancer is asbestos-related

The number of industrial disease cases attributed to mesothelioma has increased in the UK almost four-fold in the last thirty years. In June 2014, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported that the number of mesothelioma deaths had increased by nearly 11 per cent in just one year to more than 2,500 in 2012 and the number of new cases of mesothelioma assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit had risen by 7.1 per cent from 1,985 in 2011 to 2,125 new cases in 2012 (IIDB).

Despite mesothelioma accounting for just one per cent of all cancers, an increase each year to more than a half of all 8,000 occupational cancer deaths is believed to be related to asbestos exposure cancer in England and Wales.

In cases where patients are said to have died from an ‘industrial disease’, it may only be when tissue samples have been removed and analysed via a biopsy that the actual cause of death is discovered to be mesothelioma as a result of asbestos exposure. It’s not uncommon for the family of the deceased to be confounded by the examination results of a coroner’s report and seek to understand how and where exposure to asbestos could have taken place.

No knowledge of the deadly health risks

One of the biggest difficulties in establishing when exposures occurred is because of a long period of up to fifty years known to occur before the victim starts to suffer the earliest symptoms. However, many cases are reported where the victim recalls working with asbestos materials and in the “clouds of dust” caused by airborne fibre particles. In nearly every case, however, the victim had no knowledge of the deadly health risks and employers rarely issued appropriate breathing masks or protective equipment.

Many men and women who did not directly work with asbestos were also exposed without even knowing of its existence. Until white asbestos was banned at the end of 1999, the fibres could still be used in the building or renovation of any public or private property where they worked, most often a school, nursery, hospital, council offices or factory units.

Non-specific symptoms

Recognising the early warning signs of mesothelioma is not easy. Symptoms can be rather non-specific, such as shortness of breath, chest pain and weight loss, which can result in further delays in seeking medical advice. Elderly victims can all too easily be confused by the early symptoms, and believe they are suffering from another common ailment, such as influenza, bronchitis or another respiratory disease.

The early symptoms of mesothelioma may very well be mistaken as “age-related” or the result of “being out of condition” but they can also be misdiagnosed as heart failure or other heart problems.

Mesothelioma in the lung linings usually causes pleural thickening, which often causes the pleura to become fibrous and harden, constricting lung movement and making breathing more difficult. Pleural effusions – the build up of fluid in the lung linings – may be misdiagnosed as pneumonia, tuberculosis, lung infection or a drug reaction. Sometimes patients have a prior medical history and the onset of a stomach pain caused by a stage in mesothelioma may be ignored by patients who previously suffered a gallbladder problem or stomach surgery.

If there has been a long history of cigarette smoking, the appearance of a symptom, such as pleural effusion may also not be recognised as an early symptom of pleural mesothelioma. A dry cough experienced by someone trying to quit smoking may be “explained away” as their attempt to quit the habit. Invariably, the onset may be hardly noticeable and is followed by a slow, gradual build-up in the number and severity of symptoms.

The most common physical symptoms of mesothelioma include:

Shortness of breath
Dry repeated cough
Difficulty swallowing
Sweating, fever
Weight loss
Fatigue, muscle weakness
Lower back pain, pain in the side of the chest
Swelling in the upper body, especially the face and arms

Recognising the potential early signs of mesothelioma is crucial for anyone who suspects they may have been regularly exposed over long periods to asbestos at any time in their working lives.

A GP / doctor should also always be informed of any possible prior exposure to asbestos because the true cause may not be detected at an early general examination as the initial symptoms are so vague. A number of tests, scans and thorough examinations will need to be carried out to provide a conclusive diagnosis.