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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

What is mesothelioma?

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The public first learned of the dangers of asbestos exposure in 1980, the same year that Steve McQueen died of the disease.  The problem now was that the material was in nearly every home, every business, every military ship, and every submarine in the United States.  Yet it was in this year that the public first learned that asbestos was linked to a deadly form of cancer called mesothelioma.

Anyone involved in the production, transportation, or handling of the material is at risk of inhaling the tiny fibers of the material that get into the air and are inhaled or ingested.  The thin layer of cells lining the bodies internal organs, known as the mesothelium, becomes inflamed, and then scarring forms that can later lead to the development of cancerous cells.

This is a significant form of cancer because mesothelial cells produce materials that help the organ function.  For instance, pleural mesothelial cells produce a slippery, non-adhesive covering for the organ, although it also has other functions, which include the transportation of cells and fluid, inflammation and cell repair, among others.  Cancerous cells may disrupt this function.

There are three places in the body this type of malignant cancer forms:
  1. Pleural Cavity: The protective covering that wraps around the lungs. This is the most common form of the cancer, as it occurs in about 70% of cases.  It is generally called Pleural Mesothelioma.
  2. Peritonial Cavity: The protective covering that wraps around the intestines. It is generally called Peritoneal Mesothelioma.
  3. Pericardial Cavity: The protective covering that wraps around the heart. It is generally called Pericardial mesothelioma. 
Symptoms of mesothelioma generally do not appear until many years after exposure, so it would not be uncommon for a Vietnam veteran working in the boiler room of a ship or submarine to be diagnosed today with the disease.  

Early symptoms generally mimic other diseases, such as those present with common colds and flues.  

There is no cure.  However, if discovered early enough, treatment includes chemotherapy, radiation, and removal of the affected lung portion. There are also some clinical trials going on with experimental medicine that might also help reduce mortality and morbidity.

The bottom line here is that if you suspect that you or someone you love or care for has been exposed to asbestos in the past, it's a good idea to communicate this with a physician so the situation can be monitored.  The best chance for treatment is an early diagnosis.

A great place to begin learning about this disease and what you can do is to check out

Further reading:

  2. Matsaers, Steven E., "The Mesothelial cell," The Internal Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology, January, 2004, Volume 36, Issue 1, pages 9-16,, accessed 4/26/14

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