The disease is usually fatal and causes much suffering Mesothelioma is a cancer that affects the lining of internal organs (called the mesothelium). Most often, mesothelioma affects the cells that line the chest (pleural mesothelioma), and it is usually caused by asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma may also occur in the lining of the abdominal cavity (peritoneal mesothelioma) and the sac that surrounds the heart (pericardial mesothelioma). The disease is usually fatal and causes much suffering.
Who Gets Mesothelioma?
If you have worked in an occupation that exposed you to asbestos, you are at risk for developing mesothelioma. Asbestos are naturally occurring minerals that have been used in a wide variety of products since the 1940s because they resist heat and corrosion. Industrial use of asbestos has declined since 1983 when the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) set forth restrictions on asbestos.
Approximately 70 to 80 percent of mesothelioma cases are caused by past occupational exposure, according to the American Lung Association. Being exposed for just one or two months can lead to mesothelioma 30 to 40 years later—and sometimes, even 70 years later. The disease most often affects men and typically surfaces over age 65.
Individuals who held the following occupations where they breathed in asbestos are at risk for being diagnosed with mesothelioma:
- Asbestos miners
- Armed forces service members
- Auto mechanics and plant workers
- Building engineers
- Boat builders
- Ceiling and floor tile workers
- Construction workers
- Demolition crews
- Railroad workers
- Rubber workers
- Sheet metal workers
- Shipyard workers
- Warehouse workers
- Workers in factories that manufacture plastic or heat-resistant fabrics and clothing
Diagnosis of Mesothelioma
If you experience symptoms such as a cough, shortness of breath, pain in the lower back or side of the chest, fever, sweating, weight loss, fatigue, difficulty swallowing, hoarseness or swelling of the face and arms, you will want to consult with a doctor. They may be due to pleural mesothelioma. If you have symptoms such as abdominal pain and swelling or nausea and vomiting, they could be caused by peritoneal mesothelioma. The first thing your doctor will want to do is record your complete medical history and perform a thorough physical exam. The exam may show evidence of fluid buildup in the lungs, abdomen or heart when your doctor listens to these areas using a stethoscope.
If mesothelioma is suspected, further tests will be performed. These may include:
- A chest x-ray
- A computed tomography (CT) scan
- A positron emission tomography (PET) scan
- A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
- Blood tests
However, the only definitive way to diagnose mesothelioma is through a biopsy, which involves removing cells from a suspected abnormal area and examining them under a microscope. A biopsy can be done in different ways, depending on the situation.
If you have fluid buildup, a sample can be taken by inserting a thin needle into the skin to remove it. The fluid is tested to see if it contains cancer cells and whether the cancer is a mesothelioma. Alternatively, a biopsy can remove samples of the lymph nodes to see if the cancer has spread there. An endoscopic biopsy may also be performed: An endoscope–a thin, tube-like instrument used to look inside the body–has a light, a tiny video camera and a tool to remove tissue samples.
No matter which method is used, all fluid and tissue samples are sent to a pathology lab. Special lab tests are often performed to distinguish mesothelioma from other cancers and to provide an accurate diagnosis.