Mesothelioma: Asbestos Cancer

Malignant mesothelioma is a cancerous tumor caused by exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma cancer is statistically rare, with between three and four thousand cases diagnosed in the United State each year. There is a long latency period—or the time between asbestos exposure and the development of disease—with mesothelioma. Asbestos exposure may have occurred as many as 30 or 40 years prior to diagnosis. Once discovered, however, mesothelioma is an aggressive and deadly tumor.

Diagnosing mesothelioma can be difficult, but like most cancers, early diagnosis is important to treatment outcomes. Because mesothelioma is rare, many doctors are not familiar with this malignancy; yours may have never seen a case of mesothelioma before. Not only can this delay diagnosis, but it also means your doctor may not be aware of the mesothelioma treatments available.

If you have a history of asbestos exposure, it is important that you make your doctor aware so that he or she knows to look for any signs that mesothelioma has developed. It is also important to be an advocate for yourself; if you are diagnosed with mesothelioma, or concerned your physician is not taking your symptoms seriously, find a specialist who has treated others with malignant mesothelioma.

Types of Mesothelioma

There are several types of mesothelioma. Asbestos is linked to all types. To understand the differences and similarities between the types of mesothelioma, it is easiest to explain a little about the structure of the human body.

Within the body, several cavities exist which house various organs. The chest, or thoracic cavity, include the lungs and heart. In the abdominopelvic cavity, the stomach, intestines, liver, reproductive organs, bladder, and other organs are included.

Many of these organs require movement to do their work, such as the expansion and contraction of the lungs, beating of the heart, or the contractions of the intestines. To allow an organ its needed action, two layers of membrane with lubricating fluid between them permit the organ to slide against other organs and the inside walls of the body smoothly.

The two layers with fluid in between are actually a single membrane. If you picture your fist pushing into a very lightly filled balloon, your fist represents the organ being surrounded, the air of the balloon represents the lubricating fluid, and the balloon itself makes up the inner and outer layers of the protective membrane. In this same way, these membranes within the body are one layer that function as two.

These membranes are the mesothelium. One covers the lungs and chest: the pleural mesothelium. Another covers the heart: the pericardial mesothelium. The organs of the abdomen are covered by the peritoneal mesothelium. Finally, the reproductive organs are covered by a mesothelial lining. It is from each of these membranes that the various types of mesothelioma get their names:

  • Pleural Mesothelioma (surrounding the lungs and chest)
  • Peritoneal Mesothelioma (or abdominal mesothelioma)
  • Pericardial Mesothelioma (surrounding the heart)
  • Testicular Mesothelioma (Malignant mesothelioma of the tunica vaginalis testis) or mesothelioma of the uterine serosa (mesothelium surrounding the male and female reproductive organs)

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