Mesothelioma most often occurs in the tissue surrounding the lungs (pleural) but can also occur in the tissue in the abdomen (peritoneal), the tissue that surrounds the heart (pericardial) and the tissue surrounding the testicles (tunica vaginalis).
The mesothelium is composed of mesothelial cells, which provide a protective surface and play a role in a number of processes such as fluid transport, inflammation, and tissue repair.
The mesothelium lines the pleural, peritoneal, and pericardial cavities, as well as the testicles.
When asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested, they can enter the mesothelium and injure the mesothelial cells, eventually giving rise to malignant tumors.
The Cause of Mesothelioma
The only known cause of this type of cancer is asbestos exposure.
Asbestos is a fiber that was once widely used in hundreds of building, industrial, commercial, and housing products and is still present in millions of U.S. workplaces and homes.
The risk of exposure to asbestos remains a very real danger and symptoms of malignant mesothelioma do not appear for at least 15 years after asbestos exposure.
For those who worked with or around asbestos products, airborne fibers can be inhaled or ingested, lodging themselves in the tissue lining the lung (known as the pleura), chest cavity, or abdominal cavity.
These fibers can stay in the body for decades before mesothelioma develops.
Questions About Mesothelioma & Asbestos Exposure:
How Does Asbestos Cause Mesothelioma?
People who are exposed to asbestos typically inhale tiny fibers that stick in the pleura tissue lining the lungs and coating the chest wall.
These asbestos fibers can cause cellular changes, and may cause irritation and inflammation in the pleura for many years before malignant pleural mesothelioma develops.
In some cases, people ingest rather than inhale the microscopic asbestos fibers, which can then become lodged in the tissue lining the abdominal cavity and organs.
This can eventually cause peritoneal mesothelioma, also known as abdominal mesothelioma.
In rare cases, the asbestos fibers make their way to the tissue lining the heart or the testicles, resulting in pericardial or testicular mesothelioma.
How Dangerous Is Asbestos?
Asbestos poses a serious health hazard to anyone exposed to it.
Since the 1970s, the U.S. government has been working to reduce the use of asbestos-containing materials and has implemented asbestos safety precautions for workers who may come into contact with the deadly material. However, it is still not completely banned in the United States. And there is no safe level of exposure.
Asbestos exposure can lead to a number of serious diseases.
Is There a Test For Asbestos Exposure?
Although there are no screening tests yet, if you know or suspect that you have been exposed to asbestos, you should talk to your doctor about doing a chest X-ray once a year.
X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs can be used to help diagnose mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases early.
Also, cutting-edge blood tests (such as the MESOMARK blood test) have the potential to improve your chances of early detection.
Can Adenocarcinoma Be Caused By Asbestos?
Adenocarcinoma is a cancer that originates in the glandular cells. According to the National Cancer Institute, most cancers of the lung, prostate, colon, pancreas, and breast are adenocarcinomas. Inhalation of asbestos fibers can be a cause of adenocarcinoma in the lungs.
The Difference Between Mesothelioma and Asbestos
Asbestos refers to a group of six fibrous minerals that occur naturally in the environment.
These minerals have been used in many industrial and household products over the years. Asbestos is considered a dangerous carcinogen, which means it is a cause of cancer.
A type of cancer caused by asbestos exposure.
Signs and Symptoms of Mesothelioma
Symptoms of malignant pleural mesothelioma, the most common form of the asbestos cancer, often start out like other respiratory diseases such as the flu, pneumonia, or COPD.
However, anyone with a history of asbestos exposure should seek medical attention immediately if he or she exhibits these symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Pleural effusion (fluid on the lungs)
- Weight loss
- Persistent cough
- Loss of appetite
Types of Mesothelioma
The most common type of the cancer is malignant pleural mesothelioma, which affects the pleura — the mesothelial membrane lining the lungs and chest wall.
This type begins in the pleura typically results from asbestos fibers being inhaled. Tumors that develop in the pleura may spread to the nearby diaphragm, heart, and blood vessels of the chest. Early symptoms can include shortness of breath, pleural effusion (pleural fluid build-up), chest pain, cough, and a lack of energy.
Although the cancer can spread (“metastasize”) from the pleura into the lung, the origin site is the actual pleural tissue surrounding the lung – not the lung itself. (There are many differences between mesotheliomas and lung cancer.)
When it develops in the peritoneum, the mesothelial membrane that covers the abdominal cavity and the organs within it, the cancer is called peritoneal mesothelioma (or abdominal).
Peritoneal mesothelioma is the second-most common form of this cancer, accounting for about 10 percent to 15 percent of new diagnoses.
This peritoneal cancer may result from swallowing asbestos fibers or inhaling fibers that then work their way into the abdomen.
Patients with malignant peritoneal mesothelioma often experience abdominal swelling due to fluid build-up accompanied by abdominal pain, weight loss, and loss of appetite.
The pericardium is the mesothelial membrane covering the heart.
Pericardial mesothelioma is a highly lethal and very rare form of the cancer, accounting for roughly 1 percent to 5 percent of all new cases.
Fluid in the pericardial space, shortness of breath, fever, chest pain, weight loss, and heart palpitations are symptoms of this pericardial cancer.
The rarest of all types, mesothelioma of the tunica vaginalis testis (testicular mesothelioma) is a tumor of the membrane covering the testicle.
Because of its rarity, there is little clinical agreement about this type of testicular cancer characteristics and symptoms, making diagnosis extremely difficult.
Patients sometimes report painful swelling of the testicle, and a doctor diagnoses the cancer intra-operatively (during surgery) or post-operatively, following laboratory analysis.
Ultrasound and other imaging scans and tests may also be used for testicular mesothelioma diagnosis.
Questions About Mesothelioma:
What Is A Mesothelium?
The mesothelium is the membrane that surrounds many of the body’s vital organs. This membrane secretes a lubricating fluid that provides easy movement of the organs within the body.
This is where the cancer develops when asbestos is inhaled or ingested. When the mesothelium becomes cancerous, it is called mesothelioma.
There can be multiple forms of the cancer when it affects the mesothelium.
The form is determined by the location in which the tumor begins, known as its origin site, and the type of cells that the tumor invades, known as its histological subtype. Each type may require a different treatment.
Can Smoking Cause Mesothelioma?
Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma. If you are a smoker who has been diagnosed, your doctor will urge you to quit immediately.
Why is malignant pleural mesothelioma the most common type of mesothelioma?
Most people are exposed to asbestos when fibers from asbestos-containing materials become airborne. This could happen when cutting, sanding, drilling, filing, or otherwise disturbing these dangerous materials. In the past, some workers also were exposed to raw asbestos, which was mixed with other materials to form products such as asbestos cement.
Airborne asbestos fibers could easily drift across an entire worksite, putting everyone in the vicinity at risk, not just those who were working directly with the material. This widespread exposure risk makes pleural the most common type of the disease.
Can mesothelioma be inherited?
No, malignant mesothelioma cannot be inherited, and it is not contagious.
However, family members could have been exposed to asbestos secondhand (known as take-home asbestos) when those who worked with the material accidentally brought fibers home on clothing or uniforms.
Secondhand exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma. There may be some genetic factors in the development of this asbestos cancer.
Lung Cancer Vs. Mesothelioma
People may confuse malignant mesothelioma with lung cancer. However, these are two separate types of cancer. Lung cancer is a carcinoma that affects the lung itself.
Is mesothelioma the same as lung cancer?
Mesothelioma is a cancer that attacks the mesothelium tissue that lines the lungs, chest cavity, and other organs in the body. Exposure to asbestos can cause both types of cancer, but it is the only known cause of malignant mesothelioma.
Asbestosis Vs. Mesothelioma
What is asbestosis disease?
Asbestosis disease is a chronic lung condition that is caused by inhaling asbestos fibers.
The asbestos fibers lodge in tiny sacs in the lungs, known as alveoli. Symptoms of asbestosis include shortness of breath, tightness and pain in the chest, chronic cough, loss of appetite, weight loss, and clubbing of fingers and toes.
Treatment can include use of an oxygen tube or mask, pulmonary rehabilitation exercises, or a lung transplant in extreme cases.
Are asbestosis and mesothelioma the same?
No. Although both of these diseases, along with lung cancer, are associated with exposure to asbestos, they are not the same.
Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease, not a cancer. It is caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers, which can get stuck in the small sacs in the lungs. Having asbestosis can increase a patient’s chances for developing asbestos-related lung cancer.
Malignant mesothelioma is a cancer. It affects the mesothelium tissue, which lines the lungs and chest wall, as well as the abdominal cavity, heart, and testicles. Malignant mesothelioma is caused by the inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers, which lodge in the mesothelium tissue.
How Is Mesothelioma Diagnosed?
When you begin to experience symptoms, your doctor will first do a physical exam and talk to you about your work history.
He or she will likely perform:
- Chest X-ray
- CT scan
- PET Scan
A biopsy is ultimately needed to confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis.
What To Expect After a Mesothelioma Diagnosis
Patients and their families worry about what to expect after a diagnosis.
Your doctor will review all the treatment options with you, which may include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
You may also be able to participate in clinical trials.
The treatment you receive will be aimed at extending your life, alleviating symptoms and slowing the spread of the cancer if possible.
As soon as you are diagnosed, it is crucial that you see a doctor who specializes in this rare type of cancer.
You should also talk to an experienced mesothelioma lawyer about your options for pursuing financial compensation.
Contact us today to be connected to medical experts and legal professionals.
Mesothelioma Diagnosis FAQs
When was mesothelioma first diagnosed?
For centuries, doctors have noted that asbestos had an adverse effect on people’s health.
- In the 1700s, a French doctor first noted “pleural tumors” believed to be mesothelioma.
- In the 1800s, a German physician noted tumors in the peritoneal (abdominal) cavity.
- The term “mesothelioma” was first used in 1909.
- However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that researchers connected mesothelioma to asbestos.
Is mesothelioma always malignant?
Benign (or noncancerous) tumors can develop in the mesothelium tissue lining. However, these tumors are not the result of asbestos exposure, and they can be removed with a positive prognosis for the patient. Unfortunately, though, the large majority of mesothelioma cases are malignant. Benign mesothelioma cases are extremely rare.
Can a benign tumor turn into cancer?
Benign tumors, if not removed, are usually carefully monitored for changes that may indicate they have turned cancerous. For people who have had a benign mesothelioma tumor removed, there is a risk that the tumor could come back as cancer.
Can mesothelioma be misdiagnosed?
Because mesothelioma is a rare cancer, doctors may not immediately recognize symptoms. Patients may be told they have pneumonia or other lung conditions. It is important to discuss your history of asbestos exposure with your doctor. And do not hesitate to seek a second opinion from a mesothelioma specialist if you are experiencing symptoms.
What Is Your Prognosis?
Because this is an aggressive cancer that is often detected in the late stages, the prognosis for mesothelioma patients is not good.
Treatment options generally focus on keeping a patient comfortable, rather than on eradicating the cancer.
The earlier the cancer is detected, though, the better the prognosis for mesothelioma patients. So people who have been exposed to asbestos in the past should see a doctor at the first sign of symptoms.What is the life expectancy of a person with mesothelioma?Is mesothelioma fatal?
Stages of Mesothelioma
The progression of pleural mesothelioma is measured in four stages.
Traditionally, these stages measured only the tumor mass under the Butchart System.
However, a second system, the TNM system, looks at the growth of lymph nodes, which filter out harmful substances from the body, and metastasis, or the extent that the cancer has spread.
All staging systems relate to pleural (chest) mesothelioma, the most common form of the disease, and use four stages.
There are no established staging systems for peritoneal or pericardial mesothelioma.
The TNM staging system breaks down Stage I into two categories that describe where the cancer is located.
- Stage IA is when the cancer is found on one side of the chest in the chest wall lining. It also covers when it is found in the chest cavity lining between the lungs and/or the lining that covers the diaphragm. The cancer has not affected the lung at Stage IA.
- Stage IB is when cancer is in the chest lining on one side of the chest and on the lining that covers the lung. It includes cancer in the linings of the chest cavity and/or diaphragm.
The cancer has spread (metastasized). However, the cancer remains in the chest or has reached above it to the esophagus.
The two systems have different definitions for Stages III and IV.
The Butchart System defines Stage III as further spreading through the diaphragm to reach the lining of the abdomen or lymph nodes outside the chest. Stage IV occurs when the cancer can be found in the bloodstream and has further spread to other organs.
The TNM System defines Stage III as further spread within the same side of the chest. Stage IV is when the cancer has spread outside one side of the chest to the other side and to other organs as well.
Stage IV occurs when the cancer can be found in the bloodstream and has further spread to other organs.
Mesothelioma Treatment Options
Treatment for malignant mesothelioma will depend on the patient’s health and the stage at which the cancer was caught.
The most common treatment options include:
- Surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible
- Radiation therapy
Many treatments focus on maximizing life expectancy and decreasing the pain and symptoms associated with malignant pleural mesothelioma and other forms of the cancer.
There are some rays of hope for mesothelioma sufferers.
With the success of recent research and clinical trials, new treatments have been developed that specifically target malignant mesothelioma.
Targeted therapies take advantage of the unique genetic characteristics of the patient, and personalized treatments allow doctors to select an approach that is most effective for each patient.
Find Mesothelioma Doctors & Treatment Centers Near You
If a patient is in relatively good health and the cancer is detected early, surgery may be an option.
Some of the common surgeries for malignant mesotheliomainclude:
Extrapleural Pneumonectomy (EPP)
Where the surgeon removes the lung, the affected pleura and pericardium tissue, and nearby lymph nodes. An extrapleural pneumonectomy is an extremely invasive surgery that is not an option for all patients.
Pleurectomy Decortication (P/D)
Where the doctor removes the pleura lining the affected lung and the chest cavity, as well as the tissue that lines the mediastinum and the diaphragm.
Pleurectomy decortication is less invasive than an extrapleural pneumonectomy.
Cytoreduction or debulking surgery
Which is used to treat peritoneal mesothelioma by removing all signs of the cancer from the abdominal cavity. This surgery is usually done at the same time as heated interoperative chemotherapy.
Other surgical procedures your doctor may consider include segmentectomy of the lung, or a lobectomy.
Most of these treatments would be in addition to radiation therapy or chemotherapy.