Mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium caused by exposure to asbestos fibers. The mesothelium is a thin membrane that lines the chest and abdomen and surrounds the organs in these areas.
Mesothelioma is caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers. The inhalation of the asbestos fibers causes scarring of the lungs. Most people with malignant mesothelioma have worked on jobs where they breathed asbestos. Others have been exposed to asbestos in a household environment, often without knowing it. People that work with asbestos can bring home the fibers on their clothes, thereby exposing their loved-ones and putting them at risk of mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is a fatal disease. There are currently many treatment options for people suffering from malignant mesothelioma, though ultimately mesothelioma is a fatal cancer. It is not a contagious disease. The only known cause is the inhalation of asbestos fibers.
The first thing you should do if you feel you may be at risk of mesothelioma is consult your physician. Also, think how you might have been exposed to asbestos. Early symptoms of mesothelioma are generally non-specific, and may lead to a delay in diagnosis. Sometimes resembling viral pneumonia, individuals may experience shortness of breath, chest pain and/or persistent cough. Some people show no early symptoms of mesothelioma at all.
The shortest latency period (from the date of first exposure) for mesothelioma is roughly 5-10 years, although often it takes 25-40 years or more from the first exposure before the disease is diagnosed. There is no maximum latency period for mesothelioma, since asbestos fibers remain in the lungs for life. People exposed in the 50’s are being diagnosed now with mesothelioma, just as people exposed to asbestos today may contract it in 2050.
The average survival time for people diagnosed with mesothelioma is about 1 to 2 years.
Mesothelioma is fairly rare. There are about 2,000-3,000 new cases per year in this country. Most people who get mesothelioma are over 65 years old. Men are much more likely than women to get this disease.
Between 1940 and 1979, as many as 27.5 million people worked in occupations in which substantial exposure to asbestos was common. A hundred million American workers had at least some exposure.
Between 2,000 and 5,000 people a year die because of asbestos, mostly from mesothelioma and lung cancers. Tens of thousands of others suffer from asbestosis. Exposure for as little as 1 to 2 months can result in mesothelioma 40 years later.
Mesothelioma affects the mesothelium, tissue formed by specialized cells lining the chest, abdominal cavities and outer surface of most internal organs. The mesothelium produces a lubricating fluid that helps organs by enabling them to move.
Diagnosing mesothelioma is often difficult, because the symptoms are similar to those of a number of other conditions. Diagnosis begins with a review of the patient’s medical history, including any history of asbestos exposure. A complete physical examination may be performed, including x-rays of the chest or abdomen and lung function tests. A CT (or CAT) scan or an MRI may also be useful. A CT scan is a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body created by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. In an MRI, a powerful magnet linked to a computer is used to make detailed pictures of areas inside the body. These pictures are viewed on a monitor and can also be printed.
In the past, the heat-resistant qualities of asbestos resulted in its common use in many household products. Asbestos was used in older small appliances such as coffee pots, toasters, popcorn poppers, crock pots, irons and ironing boards, electric blankets, and hair dryers. These appliances can release asbestos fibers when they are disassembled–either by a repairman or by the home “do-it-yourselfer.” Consumers can also be exposed to asbestos through frayed wiring. Collectors of old and antique toasters and irons should be particularly careful when handling these items. Talc products including baby powder may also contain asbestos, and some soil conditioners and fertilizers contain asbestos-contaminated vermiculite.
Modern appliances in the United States no longer contain asbestos, but this may not be the case in other countries. There are mesothelioma victims all over the world, with the number of victims expected to increase for the next few decades.