What is Mesothelioma


There are roughly 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma in the United States every year. It’s caused by asbestos, a natural, fire-resistant mineral. Many industries, such as construction, manufacturing, and the military, have used asbestos in a variety of materials. It takes decades from the time of asbestos exposure for mesothelioma to develop.

The symptoms of mesothelioma make diagnosing the disease difficult. Symptoms take 10 to 50 years to appear after a person has been exposed to asbestos. The symptoms of mesothelioma are common in several other illnesses.

Doctors diagnose most patients when the disease has reached an advanced stage because the symptoms are nonspecific. If you have a history of exposure to asbestos, and have felt any of the following symptoms, get in touch with a member of our Patient Help Team. We will connect you to an experienced doctor and get you treatment that can help improve your prognosis.

Causes of Mesothelioma

The only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos, a naturally-occurring mineral used by many industries in materials ranging from wall insulation to brake pad lining. Experts estimate that the carcinogenic mineral has caused 80 percent of all cases in the U.S.

How Asbestos Causes Mesothelioma

Asbestos is made of tiny fibers that break apart and become airborne very easily.

Mesothelioma occurs when asbestos fibers get stuck in the mesothelium, a general name for the protective lining of a person’s lungs, abdomen, or heart.

If you’re exposed to damaged or disturbed asbestos-containing materials for a long period of time, you may inhale large amounts of microscopic asbestos fibers. Over time, they’ll collect in the mesothelium, where they cause irritation, inflammation, and cellular damage that leads to mesothelioma.

Most exposure to asbestos occurs during work; 70 to 80 percentof patients diagnosed with mesothelioma had a history of occupational exposure to the materials containing the mineral. Though the EPA considers any level or length of time unsafe, experts link the development of mesothelioma to heavy, long-term exposure.

Who Is At Risk?

Veterans who served in the armed forces from the 1930s to the 1970s are most at-risk for developing mesothelioma. The military used asbestos-containing materials to safeguard servicemen and women from fire. In doing so, it unknowingly exposed veterans to large amounts of asbestos, and increased their risk of developing mesothelioma. Veterans now account for 30 percent of all diagnoses in the U.S.

Diagnosing Mesothelioma

Being diagnosed correctly is the first and most important step you’ll take towards getting treatment. If you’ve been exposed to asbestos in the past, and are feeling ongoing symptoms, see an experienced doctor. He or she will order an imaging test — like an x-ray, CT scan, or PET scan — to find visual signs of cancer. If the imaging scan shows anything that looks like a tumor or buildup of fluid, a doctor may order a blood test to make sure the next step in the diagnostic process, a biopsy, is necessary.

A biopsy helps your doctor determines the cell type of the disease — information he or she will use to create an effective treatment plan that can improve your prognosis.

Stages of Mesothelioma

Your cancer stage is an important part of your diagnosis. Along with its cell type, the stage of mesothelioma determines how effective treatment will be. Doctors haven’t created a staging system that’s specific to mesothelioma just yet, because the disease is rare. Instead, they use a number of systems—TNM, Butchart, and Brigham—specific to other cancers. Using different criteria, each system divides the spread of cancer into 4 stages. Generally speaking, the earlier the stage, the less mesothelioma has spread, and the easier it is for surgeons to remove.

Treatment Options

If you’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you have a number of treatment options, including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Broadly speaking, your treatment will fall into 2 categories: curative or palliative.

Curative Treatment

With curative treatment, doctors extend your survival time by removing as much of the mesothelioma as possible. They often combine multiple curative treatments to achieve amazing results.

Palliative Treatment

With palliative treatment, doctors treat the symptoms of mesothelioma rather than the cancer itself. Its purpose is to improve your quality of life by easing symptoms like chest or abdominal pain.

Doctors don’t treat mesothelioma with a one-size-fits-all approach, because the disease affects each patient differently. How your doctor uses surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy depends on your diagnosis—the cancer stage, cell type, and location of the mesothelioma all play an important role in your treatment.

Additional Treatment Options

Multimodal Therapy. This is a combination of two or more treatments. Doctors have greatly increased the life expectancy of patients with pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma with multimodal therapy.

New Treatments in Clinical Trials. Researchers are also developing new treatments, like immunotherapy and gene therapy, in clinical trials. Emerging treatments can benefit patients diagnosed with any stage of mesothelioma; if you’ve been diagnosed with advanced–stage mesothelioma, you may find an option to improve your prognosis.

Your Prognosis

A prognosis is an estimate your doctor makes on how your diagnosis will affect you in the future; they base it on how diagnoses similar to yours affected other people in the past. The location, cell type, and cancer stage of the mesothelioma play a role your doctor’s estimate, and helps them decide which treatment options will work best for you.


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