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From the Today Show to local dog walks, awareness of mesothelioma spreads

Volunteers and supporters gathered in Rockefeller Center today in one of numerous events around the country aimed at spreading awareness of mesothelioma, a rare but deadly cancer caused by asbestos exposure.


More than 1,000 people participated in Mesothelioma Awareness Day, according to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, or MARF, which sponsors the annual event. Organized events, such as 5K runs, dog walks and kayak races, were held in upstate New York, East Alton, Ill., Arizona, West Virginia and elsewhere.


An interactive display with video and text information about the disease was featured at the live taping of the Today Show. Others gathered informally, wearing t-shirts and bracelets, posting mesothelioma-related posts on social-media networks, sharing medical literature and creating personalized license plates. About $65,000 was raised for disease research, MARF said.


Mesothelioma Awareness Day was started by a group of MARF volunteers in 2004. The occasion is officially recognized by Congress, 10 states and 34 cities and counties. This year, local officials in Alexandria, Va., Culver City, Ca., Fairfax County, Va., Kansas City, Mo. and Union County, N.J. issued proclamations recognizing Mesothelioma Day for the first time.


First identified in the 1940s, mesothelioma is an aggressive form of cancer, affecting the lining of the body’s internal organs. There is no cure, and treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation are largely palliative. The disease kills 2,000 to 3,000 Americans annually, almost all of whom were exposed to asbestos decades ago. Symptoms can take 20 years or longer to appear, and most patients die within 12-18 months of diagnosis.


According to MARF, the need to research and develop treatments for mesothelioma has been ignored, in part because of legal and economic considerations related to the use of asbestos.


Data collected by MARF, for instance, shows that funding for mesothelioma research lags well behind other cancers. Between 2004 through 2007, the organization says, the National Cancer Institute’s annual investment in clinical mesothelioma research was less than $6 million — one tenth of one percent of the NCI’s annual budget, and nine times less, per death, than funding dedicated to researching other cancers.


Health officials believe the incidence of mesothelioma has not yet peaked in the U.S. Asbestos use has been regulated in the U.S. since the 1970s, but more than 1 million Americans remain at risk of exposure on the job, according to government estimates. The mineral was used to make building and construction materials until the 1970s, and is still present in homes, offices, schools and some consumer products.


In addition to providing services to patients, MARF lobbies for more government funding for research. The nonprofit’s grant program has awarded more than $7.5 million in research funding aimed at developing new treatments since 2000. In 2011, foundation’s Science Advisory Board awarded $1 million to five research projects.