The “Asbestos Disease:” Mesothelioma

If you listen to the radio at all you have probably heard advertisements for law firms specializing in mesothelioma cases. This is because more than 80 percent of mesothelioma cases are caused by exposure to asbestos, and litigating against the companies who used the toxic substance has become big business.

It's really a “perfect storm” for litigious frenzy, as the latency period for the disease – a rather aggressive and deadly form of cancer – is around 20 to 40 years. Consequently, exposure to asbestos can go unnoticed for decades, and so mesothelioma cases are diagnosed years after the first exposure to asbestos occurs.

Not everyone exposed to asbestos contracts the disease. In fact, most people with years of exposure never get the disease. On the other hand, some who have just a brief exposure do contract it. This peculiarity has led many scientists to believe that there may be other, still unknown, factors involved, such as a genetic predisposition.

The disease affects the mesothelium, that thin layer of tissue that covers the majority of your internal organs. Doctors will classify the disease according to what part of the mesothelium is affected. Most commonly the disease affects the tissue surrounding the lungs, or pleura, so you may hear it described as pleural mesothelioma. Symptoms include:

·         Chest pain under the rib cage

·         Painful coughing

·         Shortness of breath

·         Unusual lumps of tissue under the skin on your chest

·         Weight loss

Peritoneal mesothelioma affects tissue in the abdomen, and its symptoms include:

·         Abdominal pain

·         Abdominal swelling

·         Lumps of tissue in the abdomen

·         Unexplained weight loss

Other, much more rare forms of mesothelioma can affect tissue around the heart and testicles.

Your doctor will base her diagnosis on chest X-ray and CT scan findings, and will confirm it by either examining fluid produced by the cancer or by a tissue biopsy of the cancer.

Mesothelioma is an extremely aggressive cancer, and by the time it is properly diagnosed, it has usually advanced so far as to be inoperable. If you are fortunate enough to catch it in an early stage, there is a variety of surgical procedures your doctor may pursue. These include:

·         A pleurectomy to remove the tissue around the lungs and ribs, or a peritonectomy to remove the tissue lining the abdominal cavity.

·         A pleurodesis, to drain the fluid building up in your chest.

These procedures do not cure the mesothelioma, but may relieve the symptoms. Your doctor may also attempt to remove as much of the cancer as possible directly, a procedure known as debulking. Ultimately, your doctor may opt to remove an entire lung.

All these surgical procedures are almost always precursors to, or work in tandem with, chemotherapy or radiation therapy.