What is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a cancer that attacks the mesothelium, a thin layer of tissue which covers the lungs, the abdomen, and the heart. It also covers the internal reproductive organs in both men and women. There are four types of mesothelioma.
Pleural mesothelioma: Pleural mesothelioma accounts for nearly 80% of all diagnosed cases and is the most common form of the disease. While it is caused by exposure to asbestos, it can take decades for symptoms of the disease to fully manifest. In the beginning, symptoms are mild, and can be mistaken for other problems.
Peritoneal mesothelioma: This type of mesothelioma begins in the lining of the abdomen. As the disease advances, it can spread to other organs, such as the liver. While the prognosis for any type of mesothelioma is very poor, new treatments have improved patients’ outlooks.
Pericardial mesothelioma: Pericardial mesothelioma, which attacks the lining of the heart, accounts for less than 1% of all mesothelioma diagnoses. In these cases, the heart becomes unable to deliver oxygen to the rest of the body.
Testicular mesothelioma: In extremely rare cases, mesothelioma will develop in the membrane covering the testicles. Because doctors have seen so few of these cases, little is understood about how this form of the disease develops. Doctors say, however, that those diagnosed with it tend to have a better prognosis than those with other forms of mesothelioma.
- Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fiber. Mesothelioma forms when asbestos fibers are swallowed or inhaled.
- There are two types of asbestos fibers. Amphibole are straight, while serpentine are curly. Amphibole are considered the more dangerous of the two, as their shape allows them to become lodged in the mesothelium.
- Between 2,000-3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed each year in the United States. While the rate of diagnosed cases saw an increase from the 1970s to the 1990s, it has seen a slight decline in the time since. This may be thanks to rules that have been put in place regulating what products asbestos is used in, as well as how workers are allowed to handle it.
- Mesothelioma has an extremely long latency period. In many cases, those affected aren’t diagnosed until decades after they have been exposed to the substance.
- For years, asbestos was used in construction and shipbuilding materials. As a result, those who worked in either of these industries are at an increased risk of developing mesothelioma.
- Four of five people killed by mesothelioma are men. Roughly 95% are white. More than one third are between 75 and 84 years old.
- Exposure to asbestos doesn’t need to be excessive in order to develop health problems. While mesothelioma can result from prolonged exposure, pleural plaques can form on the lining of the lungs. While these are benign, some of those afflicted have complained of pained breathing.
- Asbestos use in construction materials has drastically decreased. However, if your home or workplace was built before the 1970s, it’s possible that it still contains the substance. Studies have shown that asbestos remains in hundreds of thousands of buildings and homes across the country.
- One out of every three deaths from occupational cancer is caused by asbestos.
- Asbestos has been banned outright in more than 55 nations around the world. However, it’s still used by many others, and globally, incidents of mesothelioma are on the rise.
Where Mesothelioma Happens
Mesothelioma rates are higher in industrial states, as well as states which have traditionally mined the substance. The states with the highest number of mesothelioma deaths are:
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Carolina
Mesothelioma Treatment Options
There is no cure for mesothelioma. However, certain treatments can help a patient’s outlook. Treatment options for mesothelioma will vary from person to person. Doctors will consider factors such as the specific type of mesothelioma a patient has been diagnosed with, how advanced it’s become, as well as other health issues you may be facing. Once all these factors have been taken into account, your mesothelioma doctor will create a treatment plan tailored to you.
Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is often used in conjunction with other treatment options, such as surgery. It can be used before, in order to shrink the cancer, as well as after, to make sure any cancer cells left behind are destroyed. Side effects from chemotherapy can be severe, and include hair loss, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fatigue.
Radiation therapy: In some cases, x-rays can be used to kill cancer cells. Often it’s used to target small areas of the disease that aren’t easily identified. It can also be used to help alleviate symptoms of mesothelioma, such as shortness of breath. Side effects include hair loss, nausea, and vomiting. These side effects typically stop not long after radiation therapy ends.
Surgery: When dealing with mesothelioma, surgery can be used for a variety of reasons. Exploratory surgery can be used to determine if mesothelioma exists and how far it’s spread. It can also be used in an attempt to remove the infected areas. In many cases, it is used to relieve pain, such as in the removal of a tumor.
Mesothelioma Survival Rates
The life expectancy with mesothelioma depends on the patient and its factors.
Typically, those with mesothelioma live for 1-2 years after being diagnosed. A small number – between 5% and 10% – survive up to five years.
The survival rates among mesothelioma patients go up the younger they are. More than half of those who were diagnosed before the age of 50 survived at least a year. That number drops to one third among those older than 50.
Asbestos exposure most often happens in the workplace in jobs that are typically held by men. So it comes as no surprise that men account for four out of every five mesothelioma cases. Historically, many of the women who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma have lived in close proximity to mines and other industrial centers where exposure to asbestos was common. Studies have shown that women with mesothelioma have three times as great a chance of surviving five years after being diagnosed with the disease. The exact cause of this is unknown.
In 95% of all mesothelioma cases, those diagnosed were white. Studies have been conducted and show that while mesothelioma afflicts far fewer black and Hispanic individuals, their long-term survival rate is twice as high.
Learn more about factors that affect mesothelioma survival rates.