Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that is mainly caused by coming in contact with asbestos. It is a serious disease that is almost always life-threatening, but the strange thing about it is that it doesn’t affect the victim right away. Rather than causing an immediate health problem, the disease is latent for several decades until it shows up. Sometimes it can be anywhere between 35 and 50 years after the exposure for the disease to show up. As a result, most of the people who suffer from mesothelioma are over the age of 65.
Why does this particular disease take almost a lifetime to show up? What is the reason for the incredibly long latency period?
The Theories Behind the Latency Period
There has been a lot of speculation from scientists when it comes to the latency period for mesothelioma, but no definitive answers have been given. It is not exactly clear why this disease will hide for several decades and then show up later in life. However, there are a few theories as to why this is the case.
One of the theories is that the long latency period has to do with exposure. It is thought that high amounts of asbestos exposure over a short period of time can be worse than low levels of exposure over many years. Studies have shown that lower exposure levels can lead to long latency periods and those who have experienced high amounts of asbestos exposure over a short amount of time can have much shorter disease latency periods. For example, emergency first responders who worked in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks and also during Hurricane Katrina are already beginning to develop asbestos-related mesothelioma due to their short term exposure to very high levels of asbestos.
Recent studies have theorized that the location of cancer and the gender of the patient can have an effect on the latency period of cancer. If the cancer is located in the pleura, which is the soft protective tissue surrounding the lungs, it will have a longer latency period. However, if it is peritoneal mesothelioma, which affects the parietal later of membranes that covers the abdominal cavity, then it will have a slightly shorter latency period.
It has also been found that women have an average period of latency for mesothelioma of 53 years, which is longer than men by approximately five years. This difference is thought to be because women, on average, are exposed to asbestos in lower quantities. In the past, men would traditionally work in construction jobs and other lines of work with high exposure. These jobs would expose them to higher concentrations of asbestos, whereas women would be more likely to have small amounts of secondhand exposure, such as when handling their husband’s work clothes.
The Danger of the Long Latency Period
The long latency period of this disease makes it much more dangerous when it comes to diagnosing and curing. The symptoms of mesothelioma, such as respiratory issues, coughing, and shortness of breath, are often not attributed to the disease right away.
This is because the exposure would have happened so many years ago that the person doesn’t even remember or immediately think of it as the cause. For example, the exposure might have come from a summer construction job back in their youth and they might not make the connection between that experience and their current health issues. This also causes the disease to go untreated for a longer period of time because the patient assumes it is something else and does not seek treatment.
Scientists are still researching mesothelioma and learning more about how this disease works, including its very long latency period.