Asbestos, a hazardous material that was widely used in a variety of products until the 1980s, has been identified as a known carcinogen. Inhaling the toxic fibers that make up asbestos are almost exclusively responsible for the development of asbestosis and mesothelioma cancer.
What is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is one form of asbestos cancer that manifests itself in the linings of certain organs, primarily the lungs, abdomen and stomach. This rare and aggressive cancer is reported in 2,000 to 3,000 new cases a year in the United States, most of which are the result of occupational exposure.
What Causes Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure. Although there are several theories regarding exactly how asbestos causes mesothelioma, the general assumption is that asbestos fibers irritate cells that eventually prompt them to become cancerous. At the site where asbestos fibers become lodged, inflammation eventually arises and this can slowly develop into tumors.
Types of Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma is categorized by the location of the affected area:
- Pleural mesothelioma, the most common type, refers to a cancer in the pleura or lining of the lungs. About 75 percent of all mesothelioma cases are pleural.
- Peritoneal mesothelioma develops in the layer surrounding the abdominal cavity, called the peritoneum.
- Pericardial mesothelioma refers to mesothelioma that originates in the lining of the heart, also known as the pericardium.
- Testicular mesothelioma, the rarest form of the disease, appears in the tunica vaginalis, which is the membrane around the testicles.
Although symptoms vary from patient to patient and the type of cancer, general mesothelioma symptoms include:
- Chest pain
- Night sweats/fever
- Persistent coughing
- Shortness of breath
- Unexplained weight loss
Because mesothelioma symptoms are notably common and often resemble less serious conditions, it can be tricky to arrive at an official mesothelioma diagnosis. Additionally, symptoms generally do not arise until 20 to 50 years after original exposure to asbestos. This long latency period and the generality of symptoms may make it difficult to diagnose the cancer. In most cases, a patient is not diagnosed until the cancer is in its later stages of progression.
Mentioning any past asbestos exposure is crucial while discussing any health concerns with a doctor or physician. Once a doctor is aware of the possibility of asbestos-related diseases, more specific tests such as X-rays, biopsies and CT or MRI scans can aid in the diagnostic process.
Although there is no known cure for mesothelioma, patients can undergo treatments designed to curb the spread of the cancer or alleviate symptoms. Surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are the standard treatment options for the illness, yet there are many alternative and experimental options such as gene therapy and immunotherapy available for patients.
Clinical trials test procedures and medications that are still in the experimental stage. Patients who qualify for these studies may receive explorative therapies, offering the potential for higher success rates than other treatment options. The type of cancer and health of the patient are two of many factors that determine whether or not a patient can participate in a clinical trial.
Additional Asbestos-Related Cancers
Asbestos exposure can increase the risk of developing a number of serious and life-threatening health issues, including certain forms of lung, gastrointestinal and colorectal cancers. The National Cancer Institute has determined that individuals who were exposed to asbestos may be at an increased risk for developing kidney, throat, esophagus, breast, prostrate or gallbladder cancers. Furthermore, those with a history of asbestos exposure may be more prone to develop leukemia or lymphomas.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer has confirmed that all types of commercial asbestos can cause mesothelioma. As with all carcinogens, the amount of asbestos involved and the duration of exposure may play a risk in the development of asbestos cancers, especially mesothelioma.