Between 2000-3000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year. Of those who have been diagnosed, nearly 80% are men over the age of 60. The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Those who have been exposed to elevated levels of asbestos are at a heightened right of contracting this cancer. The most common type of mesothelioma develops in the pleura, which is a thin lining that surrounds the lungs and chest wall. Pleural mesothelioma accounts for nearly 70% of those who have been diagnosed.
Typically, this cancer manifests 10 to 60 years after one is exposed to asbestos. Asbestos fibers, once inhaled, can settle in the lungs and lie dormant for many years. The structure of asbestos is similar to that of a needle, fibers become imbedded in the pleura and cause damage such as inflammation and scarring of the lungs. Asbestosis, which is a lung disease causes by asbestos, is much more common than mesothelioma but those with asbestosis are at a higher risk of developing mesothelioma than those who do not have the disease. Those asbestos fibers can also cause cancer, including mesothelioma.
Shortness of breath, cough, weight loss, pressure in the chest or back, fluid buildup in the lungs, and coughing up blood are some of the symptoms of pleural mesothelioma. According to the American Cancer Society, “These symptoms can be caused by mesothelioma, but more often they are caused by other conditions. Still, if you have any of these problems (especially if you have been exposed to asbestos), it’s important to see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed.” It is also recommended that if one has a history of asbestos exposure to make their primary care physician aware of their exposure. In doing so, the doctor may conduct periodic chest x-rays or CT Scans.
If the physician finds an abnormality when running these tests, a pathological evaluation may be required. A needle or surgical biopsy is considered an accurate method of diagnosing mesothelioma. The specimens are then reviewed by a specialist called a pathologist. Due to the rare nature of mesothelioma, often times these samples are sent to expert pathologists to ensure a correct diagnosis. A cytology analysis of fluid drawn from the pleural space can also be used to diagnose mesothelioma.
Once a diagnosis has been made, the doctor will go over treatment options available to the patient. Depending on the health of the person, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or a combination may be used. In some cases, patients may be eligible to take part in a clinical trial. Each case of mesothelioma is different and treatment options differ based on many factors. For that reason, it is difficult to understand how a person will react to their treatment plan. There is not a cure for mesothelioma at this time, but researchers are relentlessly pursing innovative treatment options.