What Is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is an aggressive form of cancer that is caused by exposure to asbestos, specifically the inhalation of asbestos fibers. A lining of specialized cells protects your internal organs such as lungs, heart, and abdomen by creating a lubricating fluid allowing them to slide against one another without irritation. This lining is known as the mesothelium. Tumors that form in the mesothelial lining can be either benign or cancerous. When they are cancerous, they are known as malignant mesothelioma, or mesothelioma in its shortened form.

Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral that has long been used for its properties of durability as well as resistance to heat and certain chemicals. It has been used in construction materials, electrical materials, fireproofing, vehicle parts, a multitude of consumer products, and in the military on ships, in boilers and engine rooms, and in barracks and other locations. Many older homes, schools, and other structures contain asbestos. Construction workers, farmers, industrial workers, military veterans, and certain other occupations are particularly in danger of asbestos exposure, as are the families of these people, as asbestos fibers can be brought home in clothing and then spread through secondary contact.

Although the dangers of asbestos are now well-known and its use is restricted, it is not banned. As mentioned above, it is especially prevalent in older buildings. If it is covered and left undisturbed, it is not harmful, but when microscopic asbestos fibers are exposed and disturbed, they become airborne, and then they are hazardous. When you breathe them in or swallow them, they can lodge in the mesothelial lining. Because the fibers are so durable, the immune system is unable to deal with them. They eventually cause inflammation and scarring that can lead to tumors and malignant mesothelioma.

Types of Mesothelioma

There are four main types of malignant mesothelioma, and these correspond with where they are found on the body. Pleural mesothelioma is by far the most common, accounting for 75 to 90 percent of diagnosed cases. It gets its name from the pleura, a lining covering the lungs and the space around them. Common symptoms include coughing, chest pains, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Pleural mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed, as the symptoms are similar to other ailments of the lungs. By the time it is finally properly diagnosed, average patient survival time is a year or less.

Peritoneal mesothelioma affects the lining of the abdominal cavity called the peritoneum. This type of mesothelioma is the second-most common form, accounting for 10 to 20 percent of all cases. If you have peritoneal mesothelioma, symptoms may include weight loss, abdominal pain, and abdominal swelling. Treatment for peritoneal mesothelioma is more effective than treatment for other forms and has a higher survival rate.

Cancer of the lining around the heart is known as pericardial mesothelioma, and it is extremely rare. There are less than 50 cases diagnosed annually in the United States. Symptoms may include chest pain, irregular heartbeat, and a buildup of fluid. Because it is so rare, the prognosis for this form of mesothelioma is not good. By the time it is diagnosed, treatment usually consists of palliative care, or easing symptoms and enhancing quality of life.

Even rarer is testicular mesothelioma, which attacks the lining of the testicles known as the tunica vaginalis. Only about 100 cases of this form of mesothelioma have ever been diagnosed. Symptoms include testicular pain, a mass on the testicle, and swelling of the scrotum. Patients diagnosed with this form of mesothelioma have slightly longer life expectancies but also a higher rate of recurrence.

There are three types of mesothelioma cells:

  • epithelioid
  • sarcomatoid
  • biphasic.

Treatments for mesothelioma are based upon both mesothelioma type and cell type. These treatments may include radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery.