A very small number of people know what mesothelioma is before they receive their devastating diagnosis. Many misconceptions exist about what exactly mesothelioma is and who it affects. First, the basics: The first thing you should know is that mesothelioma is a disease, not a condition. Mesothelioma is not contagious, and it is not a genetic disease that runs in families.
Mesothelioma is a cancer. All cancers start when cells in the body begin to grow wildly out of control. Tumors may form, and it becomes harder and harder for the affected organ to do its job. Nearly every type of cell in the body can become cancerous.
Malignant mesothelioma affects a specialized set of cells called the mesothelium. These cells help form the membrane that surrounds the body’s internal organs, separating and protecting them from each other.
Pleural mesothelioma, which affects the lining surrounding the lungs or chest cavity, is by far the most common form of the disease, and it makes up about 75% of cases. Mesothelioma can also affect the lining surrounding the stomach (peritoneal mesothelioma). In rare cases, it may affect the heart (pericardial mesothelioma) or the testes.
But mesothelioma is not the same as lung cancer. Mesothelioma does not affect the lung itself. Instead, it is the lining surrounding the lung which is impacted. This can make it more difficult to treat with surgery, as often a large proportion of the lining and other organs will have to be removed in order to fully remove the cancer.
A common misperception about mesothelioma is that it is caused by smoking. This is false. While smoking can increase a person’s risk of getting lung cancer, scientific studies have found there is no connection between smoking and mesothelioma. Instead, the primary risk factor for developing the disease is exposure to asbestos.
People whose work brought them into contact with asbestos-containing products are most likely to get the disease. When asbestos fibers are disturbed and become airborne, they can be ingested and/or breathed in, where they can lodge themselves in the lining of the lung and become cancerous. These professions include shipbuilders and dockyard workers, auto mechanics, firefighters, miners, railroad workers, and construction workers.
Still, you don’t have to work with asbestos to get mesothelioma. Inhaling a single fiber of asbestos can be enough to cause this lethal cancer. Such fibers can cling to clothing or become embedded in fabrics and other materials as dust. These secondary sources of exposure may also cause disease, through contact with clothing or other materials contaminated with asbestos dust. This can put friends and family members of workers at risk. Many years, or even decades, may pass between the time a person was exposed to asbestos and when the first symptoms of mesothelioma start appearing.
Mesothelioma is not going away. Many people are surprised to learn that asbestos exposure is still causing fatal diseases, because they are under the mistaken impression that its use has been banned. This is not true. Asbestos-containing products are still used in many industrial applications and products today in the U.S., and many older buildings still have asbestos-containing materials inside, in the form of insulation and floor tiles.
As cancer researcher Michele Carbone put it in a recent academic paper, “Unfortunately, the incidence of [malignant mesothelioma] has not shown any sign of vanishing anywhere in the world.” He explains,
Asbestos is widespread in the environment due to previous industrial use, because asbestos is extremely difficult to remove, and because houses are built near natural geological deposits of asbestos… as time passes, asbestos products degrade and more asbestos fibers are dispersed in the environment.
What this means is that new cases will continue to crop up each year. At present, there are around 3,200 new cases of mesothelioma reported in the U.S. annually, a rate that has remained steady since the 1990s.
Quick facts about mesothelioma:
- Mesothelioma causes about 3,000 deaths per year in the U.S. and 5,000 deaths per year in Western Europe
- It often takes 20 to 50 years after asbestos exposure for mesothelioma to develop. People exposed in childhood have been known to develop mesothelioma as much as 70 years after exposure.
- About 100,000 new cases of mesothelioma are expected to be diagnosed in the U.S. in the coming decades
- Deaths caused by mesothelioma are predicted to rise by about 5-10% per year in most industrialized countries for the next 20 to 30 years
Mesothelioma is a deadly disease. Mesothelioma is often difficult to diagnose in its early stages. Its symptoms, such as fever, cough, or a pain in the side of the chest, are similar to those of many other more common diseases, and have even been mistaken, by many patients, for the flu. Patients may not realize or remember they have been exposed to asbestos, since so many years have passed between the time of their exposure and their illness. Almost all people diagnosed with mesothelioma eventually die from this aggressive form of cancer. However, new treatments are being researched and discovered and some therapies have successfully extended people’s lives, with 5% to 10% of patients now living longer than 5F years after diagnosis.