Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that is most often associated with older men because workplace exposure to asbestos is the primary cause. But even though asbestos has been restricted in the last several decades, it is still all around and anyone could be vulnerable. It’s important to understand what this cancer is, what causes it, how to lower risk, and what to do with a diagnosis of mesothelioma.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a mineral that is also a human carcinogen. It is a natural substance that has been mined and use by people for millennia. It has a number of properties that have made it useful for many applications: strength, flexibility, heat and fire resistance, electrical resistance, and chemical resistance. While it has long been used in human endeavors, it wasn’t until just over 100 years ago that asbestos was used extensively.
Industries like construction, insulation, shipbuilding, manufacturing, power generation, heating and boilers, and many others relied on asbestos to insulate, stop the spread of fire, and make materials stronger without adding a lot of weight. Anyone who worked in an industry with a lot of asbestos was put at risk for developing mesothelioma.
How Asbestos Causes Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium, which is a thin, double-layer of tissue that surrounds the body’s organs. The most common type of mesothelioma is pleural, the kind that begins in the tissue around the lungs. Small, needle-like fibers that come loose from asbestos can become part of the dust in the air and on surfaces. A person exposed to it in this way may inhale or ingest these fibers.
The fibers then get stuck in tissues inside the body and cause damage. Some people will then develop cancer as a result of this damage, although the signs and the diagnosis don’t usually come until a few decades after the exposure. Asbestos can also cause lung cancer, some other types of cancer, and a lung scarring disease called asbestosis.
Symptoms and Types of Mesothelioma
The most common type of mesothelioma is pleural mesothelioma. It causes symptoms similar to lung cancer and other lung diseases, making it difficult to diagnose. Symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pains, a persistent cough, and difficulty swallowing.
Less common is peritoneal mesothelioma, which begins in the tissue around organs in the abdomen. This type causes abdominal pain and swelling, a feeling of fullness, constipation, bowel obstruction, diarrhea, weight loss, and anemia. Pericardial mesothelioma, which affects the tissue around the heart is very rare and causes difficulty breathing, heart palpitations and irregular rhythms, chest pains, coughing, and shortness of breath when lying down in particular.
Far few people are at great risk for mesothelioma today. But, asbestos is still used in some industries and materials, although in a much more restricted and limited way than in previous years. Anyone working with or around asbestos has to be told about the risks, and trained with and given appropriate safety gear, all of which reduces the risk of harmful exposure.
Asbestos is also still present in many older buildings. It can be found in insulation, siding, roofing materials, flooring, adhesives, wallboard and plaster, sound- and fire-proof materials, and materials used in and around furnaces, fireplaces, and stoves. It is important for anyone living in a home built before the 1980s to have an asbestos assessment done by a professional abatement team before doing any home improvement work. Renovations, even small ones, can disrupt asbestos and cause exposure.
Treating and Managing Mesothelioma
A diagnosis of mesothelioma can be hard to swallow, as this type of cancer is aggressive and often caught only in the later stages when it is difficult to treat. Management of the illness usually involves some combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment. Newer treatments are being developed, but are not yet widely available or proven to work for everyone.
If you or someone you care about gets a diagnosis of mesothelioma, it is important to find an expert in the field. This is a rare cancer and most doctors and even oncologists never see it in their patients. A team of professionals in oncology, surgery, and mesothelioma in particular can help give you the best options and odds