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Mesothelioma Cancer

Mesothelioma cancer is an uncommon, but no longer rare, form of cancer in which cells of the mesothelium (located in the chest) become abnormal and divide without control or order. These abnormal cells can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs. Cancer cells can also metastasize (spread) from their original site to other parts of the body.

Thousands of new cases of mesothelioma cancer are diagnosed in the United States each year. Mesothelioma cancer (also known as asbestos cancer) occurs more often in men than in women and risk increases with age, but this disease can appear in either males or females of any age.

Tumors of the mesothelium can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). A malignant tumor of the mesothelium is called a malignant mesothelioma. Because most mesothelial tumors are cancerous, malignant mesothelioma is often simply called mesothelioma. Malignant mesothelioma is the most serious of all asbestos-related diseases.

The pictures below compare a normal lung with one that has mesothelioma cancer. While these are simplified drawings, they help people gain a basic understanding of how serious this disease is.

Mesothelioma Cancer       Asbestosis

Mesothelioma cancer is a disease that is almost 100% preventable because the only known cause is via exposure to the deadly mineral asbestos. The effects of asbestos on the human body have been known to be deadly for years. The normal latency period for Mesothelioma cancer (the time from exposure until the patient falls ill) is 20 to 30 years.

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Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include shortness of breath and pain in the chest due to an accumulation of fluid in the pleura. Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include weight loss and abdominal pain and swelling due to a buildup of fluid in the abdomen. Other symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma may include bowel obstruction, blood clotting abnormalities, anemia, and fever. If the cancer has spread beyond the mesothelium to other parts of the body, symptoms may include pain, trouble swallowing, or swelling of the neck or face.

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Asbestosis is termed for the disease-causing particle of the same name. The pulmonary fibrosis (major lung damage) caused by asbestos fibers develops after years of exposure to these fibers. After the fibrosis becomes well established, the victim develops increasing breathlessness often with cough, sputum and weight-loss. Asbestosis is caused by inhaling asbestos fibers in the mining or milling of asbestos, generally in the textile, cement and insulating industries.

How Asbestosis Progresses

Asbestosis development starts when a person inhales an amphibole. This particle travels deep into the lungs to one of the 300 million gas-exchanging structures called an alveolus. Each alveolus has many cleaning cells called macrophages that eat up any particles that made it down to the alveoli. Unfortunately, the macrophages cannot eat the amphibole because it is too long, but they still try. In trying to eat this particle the macrophage essentially cuts itself open and the digestive molecules that were contained inside the macrophage have now spilled on the alveolus. These molecules injure the alveolus and cause it to form a scar. This scarring formation is called fibrosis. The same amphibole that could not be eaten attracts other macrophages from neighboring areas. They try to eat the particle and also fail, which further damages the lungs. People who are exposed to asbestos inhale hundreds and thousands of amphiboles, which causes large-scale injury. As a result, major lung damage (fibrosis) develops.

Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of asbestosis can show up many years after the asbestos exposure has ended. Manifestations rarely occur less than 10 years following first exposure and are more common after 20 years or more.

Symptoms of asbestosis may include:

  • Asbestosis has been called a monosymptomatic disease because the earliest, most consistently reported, and most distressing symptom is shortness of breath.
  • Persistent and productive cough that often occurs with distressing spasms.
  • Chest tightness, chest pain, general ill feeling, fitful sleep, hemoptysis, appetite loss.

The signs your doctor will look for in diagnosing asbestosis include:

  • Basal crackles or rales. When a stethoscope is used to listen to the lower lungs (basal regions), it sounds like Velcro opening up, which is an early distinctive feature of asbestosis.
  • Small irregular opacities on X-ray (Looks like ground glass) that obscure normal lung vasculature. They are usually first seen in the lower lateral lobes in between the rib shadows. Borders of the heart, particularly the left side may be obscured.
  • Pulmonary function tests usually show restrictive disease but can also show obstructive and mixed disorders. This means that your lungs will lose the ability to breathe resulting in reduced diffusion capacity, reduced lung volumes and capacities, and reduced flow rates.
  • Clubbing of fingers and toes (swelling of the fingers and toes due to excess blood accumulating there).

Asbestosis is a chronic progressive disease, meaning that once these symptoms start, they generally do not get better. Unfortunately, there currently is no cure for asbestosis, but it does progress slowly which gives your doctor time to diagnose it and treat it, which increases your duration of survival and quality of life.

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