What is Mesothelioma?
Cancer of the mesothelium is a rare disease that occurs when the cells in the mesothelium – or the protective membranes surrounding many of the body’s organs – become abnormal, causing them to divide uncontrollably and without order. They then invade and cause damage to other tissues nearby, and can invade a patient’s organs. These cancer cells also have the ability to metastasize, or spread, from where they first developed, into other parts of the patient’s body. In most cases of mesothelioma, the cancerous cells begin in the pleura or the peritoneum.
How Common is It?
Every year in the United States, over 2,000 new cases of the disease are diagnosed. Mesothelioma is more prevalent in men than in women, and risk of the disease increases the older the individual gets. However, the disease can develop in both sexes, at any age.
The major and most well-known factor for those that develop mesothelioma is working around or with asbestos. Asbestos exposure at the workplace has been reported in almost all cases of mesothelioma. The disease is more common in men who are exposed to asbestos, although women can contract it from secondhand exposure.
Since the 1940’s, millions of workers have been consistently and carelessly exposed to asbestos fibers and dust. Those at an increased risk for developing mesothelioma are those who worked with asbestos in mines and mills, shipyard workers, and workers who had a hand in producing the material. Today, OSHA, or the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has set limits as to how much exposure to asbestos is allowed in the workplace. Personal protective equipment is now a requirement for workers who must deal with the material.
Family members and others who live with workers who have been exposed long-term to asbestos have an increased risk of developing the disease second-hand. Asbestos dust can be carried home on clothing, hair and personal items, and breathed in by other people in the home.
Symptoms of Mesothelioma
Unfortunately, the latency period for mesothelioma can be 20 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos. Symptoms are often mistaken for other problems such as pneumonia or the flu, often leading to the slow detection of the cancer. Symptoms include shortness of breath, pain in the chest, abdominal pain, and swelling. Other symptoms can include blood clotting, anemia, and fever, as well as bowel obstruction. Cancer that has spread past the mesothelium can cause the patient to have trouble with swallowing, and swelling in the neck or the face.
Since the symptoms of mesothelioma mimic other diseases and illnesses, it can be difficult to diagnose right away. A review of the patient’s medical history is the first step, and any history of asbestos exposure will be included. A physical exam will be performed, which will include thorough x-rays of the chest, abdomen, and/or lungs. CAT scans or an MRI can also help diagnose the disease. A biopsy, which is the removal of a sample piece of tissue, will confirm the diagnosis of mesothelioma.
Treatment of mesothelioma will depend on what stage the disease is in, as well as the patient’s health and age. Surgery will rarely present the possibility of a cure, since by the time the cancer is diagnosed, it has often progressed beyond the initial tumor. However, certain surgical procedures may make the patient more comfortable and reduce symptoms. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are the other two main treatments offered to possibly cure the cancer or prolong a patient’s life expectancy. These three treatments may be combined to treat the disease.