With the growth of the use of asbestos in the post-World War II United States, the numbers of malignant pleural mesothelioma has increased substantially in recent years. Mesothelioma presents in two forms – pleural mesothelioma and abdominal or peritoneal mesothelioma.
What is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a cancer that is formed when asbestos fibers become lodged in the mesothelial cells in the lining of the chest cavity (the pleura) or the abdomen (the peritonea). Asbestos fibers are introduced to the body through breathing or ingestion and the fibers lodge between the cells in these two membranes in the body. Irritation and inflammation results and cells grow around the fibers, becoming tumors and malignant cancer over time.
The most common form of asbestos cancer is pleural mesothelioma, which forms in the membrane lining of the chest cavity. It is not uncommon for the cancer to travel and spread into the abdomen, although the development of abdominal mesothelioma may be caused by ingestion of the asbestos fibers or by the fibers traveling to the lymph system and down into the abdominal membrane.
Although asbestos was mined in the United States starting in the 1800s, it did not come into extensive use until after World War II. At this time, asbestos was not known to cause pleural mesothelioma, so it was used in everything from textiles to ceiling tiles to building insulation to brake shoes. Workers in these and other industries were exposed to asbestos fibers, as were their families when the fibers were introduced through transfer on clothing, in hair and on skin.
People working in the construction industry, automotive industry, ship building industry and firefighters are at high risks of exposure to asbestos fibers. Additionally, people involved in the demolition of walls and firefighters are also at high risk of developing pleural mesothelioma. Firefighters and those exposed to the destruction and recovery of the September 11, 2001 site in New York City have been shown to have very high rates of pleural mesothelioma, due to the extreme levels of asbestos fibers inhaled.
Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma may not develop for many years after exposure. However, for some people, these symptoms develop within a few years of exposure. This has been particularly true for people who were exposed to asbestos during the 9/11 recovery efforts.
Early symptoms may include a dry persistent cough, shortness of breath and pain when breathing. Other symptoms include fever, night sweats and unexplained weight loss. An x-ray, CT scan or ultrasound may show buildup of fluid in the pleura, which is the membrane that lines the chest cavity and contains the lungs.
While there is no cure for pleural mesothelioma, treatment includes surgery to remove tumors, pain management, chemotherapy and radiation treatment. For some patients, radiation treatment may be necessary to shrink tumors before they can be removed, followed by more radiation and chemotherapy. However, some patients may not be good candidates for surgery, so treatment may be limited to pain management, chemotherapy and radiation.