Victims of asbestos exposure may be at greater risk of shortening their life because they think their symptoms are not serious enough to see a doctor, according to a new study funded by Cancer Research UK.

Survey results found that people are more worried about “wasting a GP’s time” rather than seek advice on the possible symptoms of cancer. For a mesothelioma claim to succeed, it is necessary for a detailed medical history and employment record to be produced as evidence to exactly identify the sources of asbestos exposure, which invariably occurs decades previously. It is vital that a diagnosis of mesothelioma cancer can be confirmed at the earliest possible time.

Concern over “NHS waiting times” is a key factor

The sample study of those who had reported experiencing at least one cancer symptom in the last three months reveals that concern over “NHS waiting times” is a key factor in deciding whether to visit the doctor. Respondents said they think their GP would be too busy to see them and may also “not be interested”. Consequently, they did not want to book an appointment unless it was believed that their symptoms were serious.

The new findings are particularly alarming as in most cases of confirmed mesothelioma, the patient is likely to be aged between 60 and 85, and disease is often at an advanced stage. If the tumours have spread to other tissue cells, the time remaining may be no more than between two and six months. Families of victims who pass away within weeks of receiving a diagnosis are often left trying to find out where and when exposure to asbestos occurred during an entire working life.

Adds to the list of known difficulties

One particular malicious aspect of asbestos-related disease is the exceptionally long time the potential for cancer to form remains dormant. Between 15 to 50 years or more can pass from the initial period of exposure to the appearance of asbestosis symptoms.

Reluctance of individuals to book a visit to their GP because of a worry that they might be wasting a doctor’s valuable time only adds to the list of known difficulties of catching mesothelioma or asbestosis disease as early as possible.

At the height of Britain’s industrial asbestos use between the 1950s and 1980s, there was a widespread lack of asbestos awareness to the long term health dangers. As a result, confusion and sometimes misdiagnosis was caused by the close similarity between the first signs of an asbestos-related illness and more common conditions affecting the lungs and ability to breathe normally.

Early signs of an asbestos-related condition

It was often reported that patients would simply assume that early signs of an asbestos-related condition, such as coughing, shortness of breath, chest or stomach pains were thought to be ordinary infections or “winter ailments”, ranging from a “bout of flu”, bronchitis or pneumonia to even the common cold.

In other cases, individuals would explain away a constant cough or “wheezy chest” as the result of a lifelong smoking habit or simply a matter of “getting on a bit”. It seems a far cry from today’s view that age-related fitness and health are related to many factors, from diet and exercise to genes and complex cell behaviours.

Delay the progress of mesothelioma

The development of advanced scanning technologies and other techniques of diagnosis are also now able to more readily identify the presence and extent of an asbestos-related condition. While mesothelioma is a condition mostly affecting the membrane tissue linings of the lung, there are other forms of the disease, which cause cells to turn cancerous in the linings of the stomach or in rare instances, the surrounding tissue of the heart.

The earlier a tumour can be caught the more likely a course of individual treatment can delay the progress of mesothelioma, for which there is still no permanent cure. Other asbestos-related conditions, such as pleural plaques or pleural thickening, which are not fatal but can still be debilitating, may often require treatments and monitoring to help patients live with symptoms, which can deteriorate over time.

Importantly, an early diagnosis can also mean that a course of individual palliative treatment can help a victim with having a better quality of life in the time remaining.