Is it a lingering chest cold, or is it the lethal cancer known as mesothelioma?

Is it a constant wheeze produced by seasonal allergies, or by a spreading sheet of tumor cells over the lining of the lungs?

X-rays and CAT scans can tell the difference, but, unfortunately, not enough people are familiar with mesothelioma to realize that persistent dry cough or other prolonged breathing problems could be signs of the deadly disease in its earliest stages, warned Weitz & Luxenberg, a leading U.S. law firm credited with obtaining approximately $7.5 billion in verdicts and settlements since its 1986 founding.

Weitz & Luxenberg timed its cautionary words about the cancer to coincide with the arrival of national Mesothelioma Awareness Day (Sept. 26). The firm said its ambition is to encourage older Americans — especially Navy veterans, construction workers, automotive mechanics, boilermakers, steelworkers, powerplant technicians, factory hands, craftsmen and others who, in their youth, toiled at jobs associated with asbestos exposure — to play it safe and see a doctor for an imaging exam when seemingly ordinary lung troubles fail to clear up on their own within a reasonable time.

In particular, Weitz & Luxenberg hopes these individuals will remember to always be leery of such respiratory conditions, since they are at highest risk of developing mesothelioma.

“Our goal is to get out the word to as many as possible that mesothelioma symptoms frequently mimic those of stubborn colds, cough, hay fever and bronchitis, among others,” said Weitz & Luxenberg, which specializes in helping victims of mesothelioma obtain justice from wrongdoers responsible for causing the conditions necessary to permit the disease to take hold in the first place.

“Failure to quickly recognize symptoms can mean that considerable time passes before potentially life-extending cancer treatments begin,” Weitz & Luxenberg explained. “Generally, the longer formal diagnosis is delayed, the shorter the survival. It’s understandable how such delays can occur. You think at first that what you’re experiencing is just an unusually long-lasting cold that will eventually disappear, so there’s no reason to go to all the hassle of scheduling a doctor appointment and then sit in a crowded waiting room for hours on end. Only after you’ve grown weary of taking over-the-counter cold medicines that prove ineffective do you finally decide to brave the visit to the doctor.

“By then, however, mesothelioma has had plenty of time to develop beyond a toehold. It’s in those first few weeks after symptoms arise that doctors have the best chance of slowing mesothelioma and buying you the time necessary to put up a proper fight. Putting off a doctor visit during that time leaves you at a real disadvantage.”

Mesothelioma is incurable but victims can live five to 10 years after diagnosis if the disease is detected and treated sufficiently early. As cancers go, this one is highly aggressive. It attacks the body’s mesothelium — the protective linings covering the lungs, abdomen and heart, Weitz & Luxenberg said.

Inhalation of airborne asbestos fibers causes mesothelioma, according to recognized medical authorities cited by the law firm. Asbestos is a mineral used as an economical and highly effective insulation material in many types of household, electronic and industrial products (although, since the 1980s, asbestos has been less widely used). How asbestos causes mesothelioma is not completely understood, but doctors know that it can take decades after breathing it before symptoms begin.

Weitz & Luxenberg said symptoms associated with the type of mesothelioma that attacks the lung lining (pleural mesothelioma) include dry cough, chest pain, difficulty breathing or swallowing, night sweats, fatigue and the coughing up of blood. Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma (the type that invades the lining in the region of the abdomen) include abdominal pain, abdominal swelling, diarrhea, constipation and sudden, severe weight loss. Meanwhile, pericardial mesothelioma symptoms (arising from tumors spreading across the lining over the heart) include lasting fever, irregular heartbeat and many of those associated with pleural mesothelioma, the firm said.

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