Mesothelioma is an aggressive form of cancer that affects the mesothelium, the cell membrane that lines the lungs and abdomen. The disease is caused by exposure to asbestos fibers.

What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is the most serious disease related to asbestos exposure. The disease is rare, with only 2,500 to 3,000 diagnoses reported each year. However, diagnoses did jump between 1970 and 1984, which coincides with the height of industrial asbestos exposure some 40-to-60 years earlier. During that time period, asbestos was prevalent in nearly every U.S. industry, but it was especially common in World War II era industries, such as naval shipyards.

While mesothelioma is mostly seen in men over 60, it has been diagnosed in women and children. This is likely the result of men carrying asbestos fibers home in their clothing.

Mesothelioma may occur when asbestos fibers are inhaled through the nose and mouth, and become embedded in the lining of the lungs, causing harmful inflammation of the pleura. Swallowing asbestos fibers may cause peritoneal mesothelioma, which occurs in the abdomen.

There are three types of mesothelioma:

  • Pleural mesothelioma (represents about 75% of all mesothelioma cases)
  • Peritoneal mesothelioma
  • Pericardial mesothelioma, which affects the cardiac cavity
  • Testicular mesothelioma (represents less than 5% of diagnoses)

Mesothelioma is not curable. However, chemotherapy and other treatments can extend life.

Mesothelioma Symptoms

Diagnosing mesothelioma can be difficult, because the disease may mimic other conditions. Symptoms typically associated with pleural mesothelioma include:

  • Lower back or side chest pain.
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Persistent cough
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of sensory capability
  • Hemoptysis or coughing up blood
  • Facial and arm swelling
  • Hoarseness

Those experienced by people with peritoneal mesothelioma may include:

  • Localized abdominal pain
  • Abdominal distension without pain
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fluid buildup in the abdomen, or peritoneal effusion
  • Bowel obstructions

Symptoms associated with pericardial mesothelioma include:

  • Pericardial effusion
  • Chest pain
  • Cough
  • Dyspnea
  • Paradoxical pulse
  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss
  • Generalized weakness

Symptoms of testicular mesothelioma are non-specific. The most consistant is a mass or tumor in the testes, usually discovered during surgery.

Risk Factors for Mesothelioma

Common risk factors for mesothelioma include:

  • Exposure to asbestos: This is the leading cause of the disease.
  • Smoking: While smoking alone does not cause mesothelioma, smokers who are exposed to asbestos are much more likely to develop the disease.

Less common risk factors include:

  • Radiation: Exposure to Thorium dioxide (Thorotrast), a substance that was once used in x-ray tests, has been linked to both pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma.
  • Exposure to certain forms of zeolite (hydrated alkali aluminum silicate). There is an especially strong link between one form of fibrous zeolite (erionite) and mesothelioma.
  • Simian Virus 40 (SV 40): While the exact relationship is unclear, SV 40 has been detected in some mesothelioma cells from humans. Scientists have also been able to create mesothelioma in animals with the virus.
  • Carbon nanotubes: Scientists are currently evaluating nanotube exposure as a possible risk factor for mesothelioma.
  1. American Cancer Society (2015) “What is Malignant Mesothelioma?
  2. American Cancer Society (2015) “What are the Key Statistics About Malignant Mesothelioma”
  3. American Cancer Society (2015) “What are the Sign and Symptoms of Malignant Mesothelioma”
  4. IARC “Asbestos”
Last Modified: May 4, 2016

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