Mesothelioma Overview

Mesothelioma is a rare, aggressive cancer that affects 2,000 to 3,000 Americans annually. This cancer develops in the mesothelial cells that line many organs and body cavities. The mesothelium is comprised of these cells and is the membrane that lines the thoracic cavity (pleura), the abdominal cavity (peritoneum) and the heart sac (pericardium). The mesothelium also encases female internal reproductive organs and surrounds the male internal reproductive organs. Internal organs are covered by the visceral mesothelium while the body wall is covered by the pariteal mesothelium.

The mesothelial cells in a patient with mesothelioma become abnormal and divide rapidly. This cancer is caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure and may begin to develop when asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested into the body. Unfortunately it often takes patients 20 to 50 years after initial asbestos exposure to demonstrate symptoms of the disease. This often allows the cancer to progress into later stages of development which can make treatment difficult. Initial symptoms of mesothelioma can resemble other, less serious illnesses. Advancing age, fatigue, common illnesses like pneumonia and allergies are often thought to be the cause of symptoms expressed by a mesothelioma patient.

Though a cure for mesothelioma does not currently exist, doctors may recommend various forms of treatment to combat the disease. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are common treatment options explored by mesothelioma patients and their doctors. Most mesothelioma patients are not diagnosed with the illness until its latest stages of development and patients often receive a poor prognosis. Studies typically report a median survival rate of less than a year but stories about mesothelioma survivors continue to surface instilling hope in mesothelioma patients and their loved ones. Prognosis is affected by numerous factors and is generally better the earlier mesothelioma is diagnosed and the more aggressively it is treated.

The four forms of mesothelioma are listed below:

Pleural Mesothelioma

Pleural mesothelioma develops in the lining of the lungs called the pleura. This is the most common form of mesothelioma. Pleural mesothelioma can display symptoms such as dyspnea (shortness of breath), lymph nodes, cachexia (non-deliberate weight loss), hemoptysis (coughing up blood), night sweats, persistent pain in the chest, shoulder, or back and unexplained lumps on the chest.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma

Peritoneal mesothelioma affects the lining of the abdominal cavity, or the peritoneum. Similar to pleural mesothelioma, symptoms can be attributed to tissue thickening and the buildup of fluid between membrane layers. The resulting increase in intra-abdominal pressure causes a range of symptoms. Symptoms known to occur in peritoneal mesothelioma patients are abdominal pain and/or swelling, unexplained weight loss, nausea, vomiting, bouts of constipation or diarrhea, anemia, swelling of the feet, frequent urination, heart palpitations, night sweats, severe fatigue, chest pain and bowel obstruction caused by the increasing intrusion of the tumor on the bowel walls.

Pericardial Mesothelioma

Pericardial mesothelioma occurs less frequently and involves the growth of cancer cells in the lining surrounding the heart (the pericardium). The cancerous cells cause fluid buildup and a subsequent decrease in cardiac function. As with other forms of mesothelioma, non-specific symptoms make a timely diagnosis difficult. Symptoms that have been associated with pericardial mesothelioma include shortness of breath, chest pain, heart palpitations, fever, severe fatigue and night sweats.

Testicular Mesothelioma

Testicular mesothelioma is the rarest form of mesothelioma with less than 100 recorded cases to date. Testicular mesothelioma develops in the tunica vaginalis of the testicles. The tunica vaginalis provides protection and support for the reproductive organ. Symptoms demonstrated are typically confined to the appearance of testicular lumps and scrotum swelling.

Mesothelioma Diagnosis and Treatment

The initial assessment of a mesothelioma patient begins with obtaining a thorough medical history and physical examination. In more than 90 percent of all mesothelioma cases reviewing a patient's occupational history will report exposure to asbestos. Once mesothelioma is suspected, imaging tests, biopsies, and fluid sampling are generally conducted.

Mesothelioma is a particularly difficult disease to locate and diagnosis. Imaging scans represent vital pathways toward the diagnosis of mesothelioma. There are four primary imaging test utilized in the mesothelioma diagnostic process: chest x-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET) scan. It is common for patients to undergo all these forms of imaging tests to obtain an accurate diagnosis.

Although they are crucial, it is important to note that a diagnosis of mesothelioma cannot be made exclusively from the use of imaging scans. Fluid and tissue tests, also known as biopsies involve the collection of a sample of fluid from the area where cancer is suspected. The doctors check the sample for the presence of cancerous cells.

Following a mesothelioma diagnosis, the oncologist (cancer doctor), together with the patient, will detail a course of treatment. Typical treatment options for mesothelioma patients include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation and often include two of these options. Alternative and experimental treatments may also be explored. Patients may also wish to participate in a clinical trial, a study conducted to test up-and-coming treatments and medications.

Mesothelioma Causes

Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral used extensively in the 20th century in industrial and domestic products. The mineral's innate resistance to heat and fire made it ideal for use in insulation, household appliances and thousands of other products. Though how exactly asbestos exposure causes mesothelioma is not well understood, studies have shown that the fibers are a main cause of asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma. Exposure often occurred when asbestos fibers were inhaled or ingested where they could become lodged in organs or body cavities. Overtime this can lead to inflammation or infection and the eventual development of an asbestos-related illness.

Unfortunately it often takes 20 to 50 years for a patient to demonstrate symptoms of mesothelioma. Research on insulation workers suggested this population experienced heavy exposure to asbestos and a study of 400 pleural mesothelioma cases reported returned mean and median latency periods of 48.8 and 51 years, respectively. Another study of 301 pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma cases in dockyard workers showed a mean latency period of 48.5 years.

Legal Concerns

Many of the companies that manufactured asbestos-contaminated products knew of the dangers associated with the mineral. These companies are liable for the negligence that has lead to the development of asbestos-related diseases in many of their workers. Mesothelioma patients and their loved ones may be interested in speaking with a qualified lawyer to discuss possible legal options and compensation that may assist with medical expenses incurred as a result of a mesothelioma diagnosis. offers complimentary information about legal options. For an informative packet, please fill out the request form on this page.


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