Physicians define mesothelioma as malignant or benign tumors, lesions and cell damage to the mesothelium, or protective lining, around the lungs, heart, abdominal wall and testes. Mesothelioma can affect just one, or all, of these structures. The malignancies can spread through the blood stream or lymph nodes as the condition moves through the advanced stages.
Mesothelioma often has a late onset, of up to 40 years, in relation to the original exposure to asbestos. As a result, patients find it difficult to pinpoint the exact exposure date or cause, extending the length of time before a positive diagnosis is made. Diagnostic procedure delays are also common due to the mild early symptoms that often feel much like a cold or flu.
Asbestos directly contributes to the development of mesothelioma through inhalation of the fibers. The fibers and particles that make up the asbestos materials break off and float through the air, undetected.
When individuals inhale the particles, it introduces tiny carcinogenic fragments that lodge into the lung tissue. The body fights against the presence of these particles in an effort to neutralize and remove the contaminants. Although the majority is knocked loose, microscopic fragments remain and often cause mesothelioma to develop decades later.
The majority of people who develop mesothelioma experienced prolonged contact with asbestos while on the job. These workers may have lacked safety goggles, dust masks, gloves and other protective gear that would have minimized direct contact with the toxic fibers.
Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration set the permissible workplace threshold at .1 fibers per cubic centimeter, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control, officials maintain that there are no actual safe levels of exposure. With every exposure to asbestos, the risk of developing mesothelioma rises.
Although the main cause of asbestos exposure links back to the workplace, individuals can also be exposure to this toxic substance in the open environment. Local governments, like the Government of Canada, often regulate the release of asbestos into the air from mining activities and millwork.
Since asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, it is possible for residents to come across its presence in their local environment. Luckily, in most cases, the fibrous substance remains tightly interwoven in the surrounding rocky material. Individuals can prevent inhalation of, or contact with, the fibers by avoiding touching suspect minerals found on hikes and cave exploration trips.
As detailed on the University of Montana’s bioethics website, asbestos has been mined and used as a building material since the establishment of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. The tough materials were even utilized as a fiber for clothing. Roman physicians noted that young asbestos miners were falling ill and dying from lung illnesses.
Despite this early connection, the fire retardant properties of asbestos made it an obvious choice for manufacturing of components for the construction, automotive and shipyard industries. As a result, mining of this mineral ramped up considerably in the late 1800s with the opening of the first commercial mine in Quebec.
According to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, researchers began linking mesothelioma occurrences with asbestos exposure as far back as the 1940s. With evidence mounting, officials began establishing regulations to protect workers and minimize the use of asbestos.
Since mesothelioma takes decades after exposure to develop, reported cases continued to rise through the 1970s. Regulations put in place through the midcentury were shown to have an effect, as case prevalence started to drop. In most areas, current cases of mesothelioma continue to decrease in small amounts year to year.
Types of Mesothelioma
The four main types of mesothelioma are:
Pleural mesothelioma directly affects the lungs and protective lining surrounding the organ tissue. Patients may develop breathing difficulties, such as a severe, persistent cough, wheezing, fluid accumulation in the lungs, fatigue and difficulty breathing. All of these symptoms tend to increase in severity as the condition progresses. As the condition worsens, the lungs will fail to send enough oxygen into the blood stream, causing saturation to drop to unsafe levels.
Pericardial mesothelioma affects the lining around the heart in the initial stages. As the disease worsens, the growing tumors can impede the function of the heart. Patients may develop complications relating to their blood pressure, heart rate and main artery function. These heart function disruptions often cause feeling of malaise, fatigue and chest pain. The heart may start to work overtime and develop severe complications due to the stress and strain caused by the mesothelioma symptoms.
Mesothelioma often quickly sets in around the sensitive peritoneal lining around the inside of the abdominal cavity. The lining in this area has an abundance of nerve endings, so patients often experience extreme pain as the masses grow and cancerous tissues spread. Patients with peritoneal mesothelioma also regularly deal with nausea, vomiting, appetite loss, weight loss, abdominal swelling and fatigue. Since the peritoneal lining is a central component in the body, there is a high risk of cancer spread with this type of mesothelioma.
Testicular mesothelioma often presents as small masses in the groin area. The masses may grow to a large size as this condition grows worse. Patients often experience severe pain in the groin that may make it difficult to walk easily. The aching may worsen after sitting, standing or walking for long periods of time.
Prognosis and Care
For most types of mesothelioma, recovery prognosis is poor, especially when physicians make the diagnosis in the late stages of the disease. There are four stages of this disease, with the first being the least severe. At stage four, the condition is considered imminently terminal.
Patients can undergo a number of surgical treatment attempts, including tumor extraction, mesothelium removal and organ transplant, in an effort to slow the progression of the disease. Treatment may also include chemotherapy, radiation and clinical trials, depending on the patient’s overall health condition and personal preferences.
As patients approach the end stages of mesothelioma, it is often necessary to create a palliative care plan with a physician. The care plan may include medications and care techniques designed to reduce pain and increase patient comfort levels. Patients may want to go into hospice care to alleviate stress on their related caregivers and close loved ones.