Mesothelioma is a relatively rare form of cancer which is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos fibers. Inside the body, asbestos fibers act like microscopic needles, damaging the cells of the mesothelium, a protective lining that covers the lungs, heart, chest cavity, and abdominal cavity. Over time, this can cause cancerous growths to develop in the mesothelium.
In addition to mesothelioma, asbestos is also known to cause lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, pleural plaques, asbestosis, and other serious health problems.
Every year, thousands of new mesothelioma cases are diagnosed in the United States. Unfortunately, accurately diagnosing mesothelioma is difficult for several reasons. To begin with, the symptoms of mesothelioma are often similar to those caused by other, less serious health issues. Diagnosis is also complicated by the fact that mesothelioma may not become apparent until 30 to 50 years after a person is exposed to asbestos. This long latency period has made it difficult to develop screening techniques for mesothelioma.
To diagnose mesothelioma, physicians may use a variety of tests, including chest x-rays, pleural fluid analysis, biopsies, PET scans, CT scans, and MRIs.
Prognosis and Treatment.
Due to its aggressive nature and the difficulties of detecting the cancer, a diagnosis of mesothelioma often carries a grim prognosis. The average life expectancy for people diagnosed with mesothelioma is around 9 months, although some people live for years after initial diagnosis.
There is no cure for mesothelioma, but many treatment options are available, including radiation therapy, chemotherapy, surgery, and immunotherapy as well as experimental and alternative therapies.
Risk Factors for Mesothelioma
The single greatest risk factor for mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. Although smoking cigarettes can combine with asbestos exposure to increase the risk of lung cancer, cigarettes do not appear to influence the chance of developing mesothelioma.
Because asbestos was so widely used prior to the 1970s and continues to be used even today, virtually anyone could come into contact with it. However, the risk of asbestos exposure is greatest for workers in certain professions, including mining, shipbuilding, metalworking, and construction. Family members of these workers may also be at risk of secondary exposure from contaminated work clothes or asbestos carried in the hair or on the skin.