Asbestos Exposure: What is Mesothelioma?

The mesothelium is a membrane of cells that surrounds the cavities within the body that encompass the chest, abdomen, and heart. The cells of the mesothelium are important for general organ function, particularly organs that move with frequency like the lungs, heart, and stomach. The cells provide a form of lubrication during expansion and contraction. Mesothelioma is the formation of cancerous (malignant) tumors within the mesothelial membrane. This rare and often terminal cancer is almost exclusively linked to exposure to asbestos.

Are there different types of Mesothelioma?

There are different types of Mesothelioma and the differences are determined by starting location and cell arrangement:

  • Chest – This is called pleural mesothelioma and about 75% of all mesothelioma is diagnosed as such.
  • Abdomen – Called peritoneal mesothelioma and make up most of the remaining 25% of cases.
  • Heart – Termed pericardial mesothelioma and like the other types of mesothelioma, it originates in the thin membrane surrounding the organ. This type is very rare.
  • Testes – Also very rare (mesotheliomas of the tunica vaginalis)

What Causes Mesothelioma?

Though there are other causes, the majority of victims of mesothelioma have had contact with asbestos earlier in their lives. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that became popular in the 20th century due to its unique set of properties. The fibers of asbestos are strong, flexible, and heat resistant. It was used in the building and manufacturing industry for products like pipe, plastics, tiles, textiles, insulation, brake linings, and many more. Post World War II gave rise to the boom of asbestos and the majority of public buildings and schools in the country would have utilized the material. In a dormant state, the material is virtually harmless but as the material is disturbed by crushing, cutting, breaking, scoring, sanding etc. the microscopic needle-like fibers are released in the air. Because they are so small and light, they can stay in the air for some time and travel with the wind. The inhalation of the debris causes the fibers to become lodge in the lining of the respiratory system and over time can cause mutations in cells which lead to cancer. The risk of developing mesothelioma can depend on the duration of the exposure, the concentration of fibers in the air during exposure, the rate of breathing, etc. People exposed to asbestos at a young age, at high levels of concentration, and for a long period of time will be more likely to develop the cancer. Mesothelioma may take decades to develop making it difficult to diagnose and trace back to a specific location without extensive research into the patients work and school history.

Other causes include zeolites, whose fibers are chemically similar to asbestos; radiation has been reported as a cause when exposed to patients in high doses while treating another cancer; and the SV40 virus is also suspected based on lab tests. SV40 contaminated some 30 million polio vaccines between 1955 and 1963 but the victims would just now be reaching the age where mesothelioma is likely to develop so test results are inconclusive.

What are the Symptoms of Mesothelioma and how is it Diagnosed?

Unfortunately, most of the symptoms of mesothelioma are similar to that of a cold or the flu and may seem minor (i.e. body aches, shortness of breath, cough, fever, weight loss, hoarseness). It is typical for these problems to last for months before a doctor diagnoses the problem. To reach a diagnosis, doctors would encompass imaging tests such as chest x-rays, CT scans, and MRI’s where the tumors could be viewed; blood and other fluid tests; biopsies; and a thorough medical and work history.

What are the Stages of Mesothelioma?

The stages of mesothelioma are similar to the stages of other cancers and are briefly described here:

Stage 1: The tumor is confined to the outer mesothelial layer of the chest cavity or abdominal cavity. It has not spread to the lung itself or the diaphragm.

Stage 2: The cancer has grown through the mesothelial layer and moved into the lung or diaphragm. It has not grown into the lymph nodes or other organs.

Stage 3: The cancer has now grown into the lymph nodes but not other organs.

Stage 4: The cancer has moved to other organs, muscles or the spine.

How is Mesothelioma Treated?

Mesothelioma is no doubt a very serious but rare form of cancer; only a few thousand cases are diagnosed each year in the United States. Compare this to skin cancer which has an annual diagnosis rate close to one million, and lung and breast cancer which account for roughly 200,000 diagnoses per year, and you start to understand just how rare it is. Its rarity adds to the difficulty in finding appropriate treatments and according The American Cancer Society, only a few clinical trials have been conducted. Surgery, Radiation, and Chemotherapy, like other cancers seems to be the preferred method of treatment. The percentages are low but people do have success fighting mesothelioma especially if found in the early stages.

Is there a chance for compensation?

As mentioned above, mesothelioma is almost exclusively caused by exposure to asbestos and those responsible for putting you in harm’s way could be liable for your damages. This could be a former place of employment, a factory down the street from your house, or a public building where you spent a lot of time. Damages to be compensated could include medical bills, lost wages, future medical bills, pain and suffering, and funeral expenses if you have lost a loved one to mesothelioma. It is best to speak with an attorney experienced in handling asbestos claims and with a proven track record of success on these issues as soon as possible. Once there is a diagnosis there are time constraints on making a claim.