Malignant mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that attacks the thin tissue, or mesothelium, that covers most internal organs. It is most often caused by exposure to asbestos. Although asbestos had many advantages regarding construction and insulation, the fibers are easily breakable. If inhaled, these fibers can find their way into the lungs, where they build up, cause scarring, and lead to cancer.
Linking Asbestos to Malignant Mesothelioma
People began understanding the link between asbestos and mesothelioma in the 1940s, and by the 1970s, many countries had taken steps to restrict the use of asbestos products and establish guidelines to protect workers exposed to asbestos. However, by that point, damage had been done to people working with the material at that time. Because it can take as long as 50 years from the time of exposure for symptoms to manifest, the fear is that there may be an upcoming spike in cases.
Forms of Malignant Mesothelioma
Malignant mesothelioma primarily takes one of three main forms. Pleural mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the lungs, is the most common form of malignant mesothelioma, with peritoneal mesothelioma coming in second. This form attacks the mesothelium in the abdominal area. Pericardial mesothelioma is the third primary form, affecting the lining of the heart. Occurring infrequently is testicular mesothelioma. In fact, fewer than 100 cases have ever been reported.
Early detection is one of the most powerful weapons in the medical arsenal against malignant mesothelioma. This means patients have to pay particular attention to their symptoms, which can easily be mistaken for less serious conditions. For example, symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include pain and difficulty breathing; a painful, nonproductive cough; and pain in the chest area around the rib cage.
However, when these symptoms are brought to a doctor’s attention, malignant mesothelioma is usually in the acute stage. As such, the prognosis is typically grim. However, some people have survived long beyond the estimates provided by their doctors. New and more aggressive treatments have resulted in greater chances for many patients who struggle with mesothelioma.
Stages and Treatment
Like other cancers, malignant mesothelioma is classified by stages. These stages are often the primary determinant for what treatment options are available:
- In Stage I, the cancer is localized, contained in one area.
- In Stage II, the cancer has spread to nearby organs
- Stage III mesothelioma may have spread throughout the affected area and possibly the lymph nodes.
- By Stage IV, the cancer has metastasized and spread even further.
Many times, surgery is an option during Stage I or II, as is radiation and chemotherapy. In Stages III and IV, surgery is not viable because the patient is often too weak to handle the aggressive treatment. However, patients might consider alternative therapies or clinical trials.
Who Is At Risk For Developing Malignant Mesothelioma?
Those at highest risk worked in asbestos mining or processing or worked in industries that utilized asbestos products extensively. Among those occupations are construction workers, shipbuilders and Navy personnel, roofers, and insulation workers. Also at risk are those who lived near asbestos mining or processing operations or those who live in areas where asbestos is naturally present in large amounts. In addition, wives and children were exposed when husbands came home with asbestos dust and fibers on their clothes.