Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that attacks the body’s mesothelial cells around the organs. The mesothelium provides a protective membranous lining for the internal organs and allows moving organs (i.e. the heart and the lungs) to glide easily against adjacent structures.
The names of the three regions of mesothelial cells that provide protective coating are
1) pleura, the sac which surrounds the lungs;
2) peritoneum, the lining which protects the abdominal cavity; and
3) pericardium, the sac which surrounds the heart.
Three different types of mesothelioma cancer attack these three different regions.
A type of lung cancer which attacks the pleura surrounding the lungs, this is the most common type of mesothelioma, affecting approximately two-thirds of all mesothelioma patients. Symptoms include horseness, fever, blood in sputum, swollen arms and face, coughing, loss of weight, difficulty breathing, chest pain, weak muscles, and reduced tactile sensitivity.
A cancer of the abdomen which attacks the peritoneum lining the abdominal cavity. This affects approximately one-third of all mesothelioma patients. Symptoms include abdominal bloating, impaired bowl function, fever, swollen feet, and nausea.
This form of mesothelioma which attacks the pericardium surrounding the heart is extremely rare. Symptoms include chest pain, dyspnea, cough, and palpitations.
Mesothelioma has been linked to asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a type of building material used in thermal insulation products and ceiling tiles. In the United States, asbestos usage peaked during the 1950s – 1970s. During the late 1960s, concerns over the health consequences of asbestos exposure began to arise, thereby decreasing the amount of asbestos manufactured in next two decades. By the 1980s, a new industry of asbestos abatement began to flourish. But according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as many as 733,000 schools and public buildings still contain asbestos.
Small asbestos fibers that enter the air do not evaporate and can remain suspended in the air for a long time. These fibers, when breathed into the body, are toxic.
There are three types of asbestos exposure.
Occupational asbestos exposure:
People working in factories that manufacture asbestos are likely to have a high exposure to asbestos and are most at risk of developing asbestosis or mesothelioma.
Paraoccupational asbestos exposure:
Family members of workers exposed to asbestos in the workplace are susceptible to exposure from asbestos dust brought home by the worker on his clothes or skin.
Neighborhood asbestos exposure:
Those who live in the vicinity of an asbestos manufacturing plant are also at risk.
Mesothelioma is still a relatively rare form of cancer. There are an estimated 2,000 – 3,000 new cases per year in the United States. Approximately 7-13 per one million male patients with a history of asbestos exposure contract mesothelioma. Diagnosis usually occurs 20-40 years after initial exposure to asbestos.