A retired engineer, who spent his career working on heating and air conditioning systems, has died from mesothelioma, a cancer that is caused by exposure to asbestos.
Ronald Walker, 77, died at his home on Ashgrove, Hemel Hempstead last November. He had been diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma, a disease which affects the inner lining of the chest cavity. This lining, called the mesothelium, helps to protect the lungs. It is also particularly vulnerable to the sharp yet microscopic fibers that make up asbestos. When asbestos dust is inhaled, these fibers can make their way through the lungs to the mesothelium and cause damage at the cellular level there, leading to the development of a tumor.
Mesothelioma is an unusual cancer in that it can take up to 50 years for symptoms to surface. When it is diagnosed, however, it tends to advance quickly; most patients die within a few months of learning that they have this form of cancer.
Since asbestos was widely used in the 20th Century as a fireproofing and insulating material, people who worked in factories, shipyards, construction sites, metalworking plants, and other industrial job sites are most at risk for developing mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease. Secondhand exposure to asbestos dust is also a contributing factor for the development of mesothelioma, however, and more diagnoses are being made in the spouses and children of men who worked in high-risk occupations.
Traditional cancer treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation may be options for mesothelioma, depending on the advancement of the disease and the overall health of the patient. Often surgery is not viable, however, because of the location and spread of the tumor. Several combinations of chemotherapy drugs have been found to be moderately effective in the treatment of mesothelioma, but it is considered incurable and the prognosis is typically grim.
Roughly 3,000 new diagnoses of mesothelioma are made in the United Kingdom each year, while 20,000 people die from the disease globally on an annual basis.