Malignant mesothelioma is a rare but aggressive form of cancer that develops in the cells of the mesothelium, a membrane that lines and protects certain internal organs, mainly the pleura (thoracic cavity), peritoneum (abdominal cavity) and pericardium (heart sac).
The mesothelium is composed of two layers, one surrounding the organ itself, and the other forms a sac around it. A small amount of liquid is normally produced between these two layers, lubricating the movement of each layer of cells. When a group of normal cells of the mesothelium tissue lose control and spread too rapidly, they form a malignant tumor called mesothelioma.
Although the cancer is categorized in different types, depending on the group of cells affected, the most common is pleural mesothelioma, which occurs in the pleura, the lining of the lungs. Other forms are mesothelioma include peritoneal mesothelioma, affecting the peritoneum, the lining of the abdominal cavity; and pericardial mesothelioma, occurring in the pericardium, the lining of the heart.
Asbestos exposure or inhalation, either directly or indirectly, is the main risk factor and cause of the cancer. Even if you are not directly exposed you can inhale the fiber from someone else who has been exposed to the carcinogenic. It has been described cases of pleural mesothelioma occurring in close family members of workers exposed to asbestos. For more info, please see mesothelioma causes and risk factors.
The cancer occurs in individuals who have inhaled asbestos fibers often 20 to 50 years before. Some have been exposed at work places; others secondarily by other family members who, unwittingly, have brought the fiber to their home from their work on their clothes, hair or on their skin. Although smoking does not cause it, it is thought that tobacco plays a synergistic role of cofactor in the risk of developing mesothelioma cancer. That is, smokers are higher risk to have the disease after exposure.
Mesothelioma symptoms are latent. The first signs found during physical exam are chest pain, often associated with shortness of breath, recurrent pleural effusion (accumulation of fluid in the chest or on the lung), and hemorrhage (bleeding). The latency period between initial asbestos exposure and development of the disease is rarely below 20 years. Early treatment is essential to prevent fatal complications – see mesothelioma treatment for more info.
Although the number of cases have increased in the last twenty years, mesothelioma is still a relatively rare cancer worldwide. The incidence is approximately one case per million inhabitants, compared with the incidence of lung cancer that can reach over a thousand lung cancers per million people, due to high level of cigarette smoking. However in industrialized Western nations, the incidence of malignant mesothelioma currently reaches a level of about 7 to 40 cases per 1 million inhabitants. This is due to the high risk of getting exposed to asbestos during the past decades. It is estimated that there are about 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma cancer each year in US.
The current conventional mesothelioma treatment barely works. But despite the severity of the disease, there is hope. Each year, doctors and scientists worldwide are developing new therapeutic methods and make new discoveries to improve survival and quality of life of patients. The main objective is to have better survival rates and possibly healing.
In addition, there are specialized legal assistance for mesothelioma cancer patients around the country that can help you and your family. If you do not have a specific asbestos lawyer yet, you can go on Google Search and type “mesothelioma lawyer”, or “mesothelioma attorney,” and you find a list of professionals ready to take your case to the new level.