Mesothelioma is a rare and very aggressive form of cancer that forms on the mesothelium, the protective lining covering the lungs, abdomen, and other organs in the thoracic cavity. The American Cancer Society estimates that approximately 3,000 new cases are diagnosed in the United States each year. Although it is extremely rare, historically, industrial states like Michigan have a disproportionately high share of cases. Scientists agree that virtually all cases are caused by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos fibers can lay dormant for years or decades before causing the development. Smoking does not cause mesothelioma.
There are four types of mesotheliomas:
- Pleural forms in the lining of the lungs, known as the pleura. It is the most common form of mesothelioma.
- Peritoneal forms in the lining of the abdominal cavity, or the peritoneum.
- Pericardial forms in the pericardial sac around the heart. This form of cancer is very rare.
- Testicular is diagnosed in less than 1% of all cases. This cancer develops in the tunica vaginalis – the lining of the testicles.
Mesothelioma is categorized by cancer cell type:
- Epithelioid is the most common cell type. It accounts for 70-80% of all diagnosed cases.
- Sarcomatous accounts for 10-20% of all diagnosed cases. It is the most difficult type to treat because cells are known for aggressive growth.
- Biphasic is often known as mixed mesothelioma because it contains both epithelioid and sarcomatous cells.
- Rare sub-types also include Adenomatoid, Cystic, Desmoplastic, Well-differentiated papillary, and Small-cell. Rare malignant cell types often have poor prognosis and are extremely difficult to treat.
Asbestos Causes Mesothelioma
The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Asbestos has been classified as a known human carcinogen (a substance that causes cancer) by various U.S. and international agencies. Although rare, i is the most common form of cancer associated with asbestos exposure and, in the United States, virtually all cases of mesothelioma are related to asbestos exposure.
There is no safe level of asbestos exposure.
The risk of developing mesothelioma is related to the type of asbestos fiber, how much asbestos a person is exposed to, and how long those exposures lasted. People exposed at an early age, for a long time, and at higher levels are more likely to develop this cancer. People exposed to even small amounts of asbestos are at risk of developing it.
Serling & Abramson, P.C. have represented many clients who developed mesothelioma from minimal exposures to asbestos, such as simply sorting and washing the clothing of a family member who came home from work with dusty clothing. Even riding in a car with or hugging a family member who has asbestos dust on their clothes or person can create dangerous asbestos exposure.
How Long Does Mesothelioma Take to Develop?
Mesothelioma takes a long time to develop. The time between the first asbestos exposure and diagnosis, commonly known as the "latency period", is usually between 20 and 50 years. Unlike cancer caused by smoking, the risk does not reduce over time after the exposure to asbestos stops and may even increase with time.
What Are Common Symptoms?
- Shortness of breath
- A build-up of fluid in the lungs or abdomen
- Pleural effusion
- Unusual weight loss
- Chest pain, especially after exertion
- Bowel obstruction
- Abdominal pain
- Painful coughing
- Unusual lumps of tissue under the skin on your chest or abdomen
Diagnosing can be difficult. Typically, a doctor will conduct a complete physical exam that includes x-rays of the abdomen and chest as well as a pulmonary function test. X-rays may be replaced or supplemented with advanced imaging techniques such as an MRI or CAT scan.
If you have symptoms of the sort described above, you must tell your doctor you worked with asbestos during your career, even if he or she does not ask you directly.
If the doctor has concerns, he or she will refer you to a specialist who will order a biopsy to be performed by taking a tissue or fluid sample from your abdomen or chest. This sample will be examined under a microscope by a pathologist. If the pathologist diagnoses mesothelioma, your doctor will refer you to a cancer doctor, known as an oncologist. The oncologist will discuss treatment options and provide you with resources to better handle your diagnosis.
Women and Mesothelioma
Nearly 25% of all cases in the United States occur in women. Women account for a greater proportion of peritoneal mesotheliomas. Women account for a greater portion of peritoneal mesotheliomas (forms in the lower abdomen) than pleural mesotheliomas (forms in the lungs). The opposite is true for men. This may be due to the way women are more commonly exposed to asbestos. Many women were exposed through vaginal dusting with talcum powder, which presents a greater risk to the lower abdomen. Women are also at risk in similar ways to their male counterparts such as occupational exposure or second-hand exposure from their spouse.
Women tend to have better survival rates than men. This is because many females are diagnosed at an early point allowing for earlier access to treatment. Additionally, peritoneal mesothelioma, which accounts for many of the female cases, has higher survival rates than pleural mesothelioma. Some researchers also theorize that estrogen may affect the prognosis.
Symptoms in women can vary based on many factors. Women experiencing pleural mesothelioma commonly reported symptoms that included a cough and chest pain. In addition to the symptoms experienced by men, women diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma expressed several symptoms including:
- Fluid in the abdominal cavity
- Pelvic pain
- Abdominal swelling/and or bloating
- Swelling of the lymph nodes above the collarbone
Women with peritoneal mesothelioma have experienced substantial rates of misdiagnosis in the past. If you are a woman with known asbestos exposure, you should report your history to your physician.