While malignant mesothelioma is often mischaracterized as a cancer of the lung because some symptoms mimic those of lung tumors, it is in fact a cancer of the mesothelium, which explains its name. The mesothelium lines the body’s chest and abdominal cavities as well as the internal organs, lubricating and protecting them. The mesothelium is divided into three sections: the pleura (in the chest cavity), the peritoneum (the abdominal cavity), and the pericardium (the area around the heart).
Mesothelioma most commonly develops in the pleura, the tissue lining the chest, but can also occur in the peritoneum or pericardium. Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma differ from the respiratory problems caused by the more common pleural type and can include weight loss, abdominal swelling, bowel obstruction, anemia, and fever. All three types have been attributed to asbestos exposure.
1. Limited Exposure to Asbestos Is Not Harmful.
Although individuals who work or worked directly with asbestos-containing materials are at the highest risk for developing asbestos-related diseases, scientists have determined that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. It has been suggested that even washing the clothes of someone exposed to asbestos can put the washer at risk because asbestos fibers and dust can settle on clothing and then become airborne again when the clothing is handled.
2. Chrysotile (White) Asbestos Poses No Health Risk.
The type of asbestos that was most commonly used in consumer products and construction materials is called chrysotile, or white asbestos. It is considered a type of serpentine asbestos because its structure is thread-like, making it ideal for use in weaving and other applications. While chrysotile is considered less dangerous than other types of amphibole asbestos, including the less commonly used amosite (brown) and crocidolite (blue) varieties, there is no safe form of asbestos. All types release fibers when crumbled that can lodge in the lining of the lungs and cause mesothelioma.
3. There Is No Treatment for Mesothelioma.
While there is currently no cure for malignant mesothelioma, there are treatments for this type of cancer. If the condition is diagnosed early enough, the physician may remove the affected portion of the pleural mesothelium, a procedure known as a pleurectomy or a decortication. However, surgery alone is rarely successful and is usually combined with radiation and chemotherapy.
Though this type of cancer is resistant to radiation, if the tumors are still localized in the chest or abdominal region, radiation can sometimes prevent further tumor growth. More effective is chemotherapy, which has been proven to increase survival rates. As with most cancers, however, the earlier treatment begins, the better the outcome. Since mesothelioma often goes undiagnosed until the late stages, treatment options seem limited, though new treatments and therapies are continually being developed and tested.
4. Mesothelioma Is Contagious.
This cancer is not contagious—it always has environmental causes. When several people who work or live together develop the disease, it is because they have all been exposed to the same toxin, sometimes as a result of just one person bringing asbestos fibers on his or her clothing into the shared living or work space.
5. Mesothelioma Is Hereditary.
Mesothelioma is not hereditary, although it can appear to be if several family members contract the disease. Children can be exposed to asbestos either in their homes and schools, or as a result of a parent who works with asbestos and unwittingly brings it home on his or her hair or clothes. This is known as “paraoccupational secondary exposure” and can be prevented by requiring those who work with asbestos to shower and change clothing before leaving work.
6. Only Men Develop Mesothelioma.
While it is true that men develop mesothelioma at five times the rate of women, females can also be affected. The high rate in men may be explained by the scarcity of women in the workplace before World War II, as well as the continued rarity of women in the construction trades that provide the highest risk for asbestos exposure. However, some traditionally female-oriented occupations, such as teaching and textile work, can also put women at risk of exposure.
7. Only Smokers Can Develop Mesothelioma.
Anyone who has been exposed to asbestos, whether or not they smoke, is at risk of developing mesothelioma. However, it is true that smokers who have been around asbestos have a much higher chance of developing asbestos-related diseases than nonsmokers with the same amount of exposure.
8. Mesothelioma Cannot Be Diagnosed Early.
While mesothelioma can be diagnosed early, it rarely is because symptoms can take between 20 and 50 years to appear. These symptoms are also similar to those of many other lung conditions. The best chance of early diagnosis occurs if someone with a history of exposure to asbestos is regularly checked for signs of the disease. The prognosis for patients who are diagnosed early is much better than for those who are diagnosed in the later stages.
9. There Is No Help for Patients and Families of Patients with Mesothelioma.
In addition to a variety of medical resources, there are legal steps for those who have developed asbestos-related diseases and their loved ones. Because many employers knew the risks of working with asbestos and chose to neither inform their employees nor provide proper protective gear, these employers can often be held financially responsible for their negligence.