What Is Mesothelioma?

By Cara Tompot (from asbestos.com)

How many times have you seen a commercial about mesothelioma on television?

If you’re like me, that number is probably north of fifty times. Most people have no idea that mesothelioma is an incurable cancer. Compared to cancers of the breast, lung and skin, mesothelioma is relatively rare.

The disease affects an estimated 3,000 people in the United States every year.

Asbestos Cancer

Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer directly connected to asbestos exposure. In many cases, a mesothelioma patient has an extensive history working with the lethal compound.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring substance with deadly effects. Once revered for its versatility and high-heat resistance, the compound was used in an array of products from fireproofing and automotive parts to construction materials and household goods.

At first, employers were unaware of the risks that accompanied the material, but when they found out, many companies hid the dangers of the toxic material from workers.

As a result, many occupations exposed workers to asbestos. In fact, the National Institute of Occupation Health and Safety estimated that over 75 different occupational groups exposed employees to the deadly mineral. The occupations at the highest risk of on-the-job exposure include construction workers, firefighters, industrial workers, power plant workers and shipyard employees.

In addition, asbestos was commonly used in nearly every branch of the military. Now, U.S. veterans are being diagnosed with a variety of asbestos-related diseases. It is estimated that 30 percent of all mesothelioma diagnoses are given to veterans.

While no amount of asbestos exposure is safe, the danger arises when the substance is disturbed as microscopic fibers become airborne. When someone breathes in or ingests these fibers, they can become lodged in the lining of the lungs or abdomen causing damage and ultimately mesothelioma.

Understanding the Latency Period

Mesothelioma can take decades to develop.

With an extraordinarily long latency period, which is the time between initial asbestos exposure and a mesothelioma diagnosis, it can take 20-50 years for someone to be diagnosed with the deadly cancer.

This means that asbestos victims often won't notice any symptoms for decades. Given the long period of time required for the disease to develop, most people diagnosed are over the age of 60.

Types of Mesothelioma

There are four types of mesothelioma: Pleural, peritoneal, pericardial and testicular.

Each type is named after the part of the body where tumors develop. The most common type is pleural mesothelioma, which is found in the lining of the lungs known as the pleura. This type typically results from inhaling the deadly fibers. Pleural mesothelioma makes up approximately 75 percent of cases.

The second most common type of mesothelioma is peritoneal. This type is found in the peritoneum, which is the lining of the abdomen. It makes up an estimated 20 percent of diagnoses.

Mesothelioma Symptoms

While the signs of this difficult cancer can vary by type, many patients report experiencing similar issues. Unfortunately, many of these issues can also be caused by a variety of other conditions and may end up being diagnosed as a less deadly disease.

The most common symptoms include: Shortness of breath, muscle weakness, a dry cough, chest or abdomen pain and difficulty breathing.

These symptoms are often mistaken for a chronic lung disease, such as COPD or pulmonary fibrosis, or another type of cancer. In some cases, patients may assume these are just typical signs of aging. As a result, misdiagnosis is unfortunately common.

When a patient is misdiagnosed, the cancer has more time to grow, which limits a patient’s treatment options and hurts their overall prognosis. Early diagnosis is essential when it comes to mesothelioma, so it is really important for people with any history of asbestos exposure to speak with their doctor immediately if they have any possible symptoms.

While there is no cure for mesothelioma, new medical advancements are making it possible for survivors to live longer than ever.