Malignant mesothelioma (meso-thee-lee-O-muh) is a type of cancer that occurs in the thin layer of tissue that covers most internal organs (mesothelium).
Mesothelioma is an aggressive and deadly form of cancer. Treatments for mesothelioma are available, but for many people with mesothelioma, treatment is not possible.
Doctors share mesothelioma in different types based on what part of mesothelium is affected. Mesothelioma most often affects the tissue surrounding the lungs (pleura). This type is called pleural mesothelioma. Other rare mesothelioma affects the tissue of the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma), around the heart and around the testes.
Mesothelioma does not include a form of noncancerous (benign) tumor that appears in the chest and is sometimes referred to as benign mesothelioma or solitary fibrotic tumor.
Signs and symptoms of mesothelioma vary depending on where the cancer occurs.
Pleural mesothelioma , which affects the tissue surrounding the lungs, causes signs and symptoms that may include:
- Chest pain under the cage
- Painful cough
- Breathing difficulties
- Unusual tissue disorders under the skin on the chest
- Unexplained weight loss
Peritoneal mesothelioma , which occurs in the abdominal tissue, causes signs and symptoms that may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal swelling
- Swelling of the tissue in the abdomen
- Unexplained weight loss
Other forms of mesothelioma
Signs and symptoms of other types of mesothelioma are unclear, because these forms of the disease are very rare.
Pericardial mesothelioma, which affects the tissue surrounding the heart, can cause signs and symptoms, such as difficulty in breathing and chest pain.
Vaginal tunic mesothelioma, which affects the tissue around the testes, can first be detected as swelling or a mass on a testicle.
When to see a doctor
Consult your doctor if you have signs and symptoms that may indicate mesothelioma. Signs and symptoms of mesothelioma are not specific to this disease and, due to the rarity of mesothelioma, are more likely to be related to other conditions. If any persistent signs and symptoms appear unusual or disturbing, ask your doctor to evaluate them. Tell your doctor if you have been exposed to asbestos.
Generally, cancer begins when a number of genetic mutations occur in a cell, causing cell growth and multiplication. It is not clear what causes the original genetic mutations leading to mesothelioma, although researchers have identified factors that may increase the risk. It is possible that cancers arise due to an interaction between several factors, such as inherited conditions, the environment, your health conditions, and lifestyle choices.
Exposure to asbestos: the main risk factor for mesothelioma
Asbestos is a mineral that is naturally found in the environment. Asbestos fibers are strong and heat resistant, making them useful in a wide variety of applications such as insulation, brakes, shingles, floors and many other products.
When asbestos is broken, such as during the extraction process or when removing the asbestos insulation, dust can be created. If dust is inhaled or swallowed, asbestos fibers will deteriorate into the lungs or stomach where they can cause irritation that can lead to mesothelioma. Just as this happens is not understood. It may take 20-40 years or more for mesothelioma to develop after exposure to asbestos.
Most people with years of exposure to asbestos do not develop mesothelioma. And yet, others with very short exposure develop the disease. This indicates that other factors may be involved in determining whether someone becomes mesothelioma or not. For example, you may inherit a predisposition to cancer or another condition could increase the risk.
Factors that may increase the risk of mesothelioma include:
- Personal history of exposure to asbestos. If you were directly exposed to asbestos fibers at work or at home, the risk of mesothelioma is greatly increased.
- To live with someone who works with asbestos. People who are exposed to asbestos can wear fiber at home on their skin and clothing. Exposure to these ancient fibers over many years may put others at risk of mesothelioma. People who work with high levels of asbestos may reduce the risk of bringing asbestos fibers home through showers and changing clothes before leaving the workplace.
- A family history of mesothelioma. If your parent, brother or child has mesothelioma, you may be at increased risk for this disease.
As pleural mesothelioma spreads in the chest, it puts pressure on the structures in that area. This can cause complications, such as:
- Difficult breathing
- Chest pain
- Difficulty swallowing
- Pain caused by pressure on nerves and spinal cord
- Accumulation of chest fluid (pleural effusions) that can compress the nearby lung and make breathing difficult
Reducing exposure to asbestos may reduce the risk of mesothelioma.
Find out if you work with asbestos
Most people with mesothelioma have been exposed to asbestos fibers at work. Workers who may encounter asbestos fibers include:
- Workers in the factory
- Insulating producers
- Construction workers
- Auto mechanics
Ask your employer if you are at risk of exposure to asbestos at work.
Observe the employer’s security regulations
Observe all occupational safety measures, such as protective equipment. You may also be asked to take your clothes and change your work clothes before taking a lunch break or taking you home. Talk to your doctor about other precautions you can take to protect yourself from exposure to asbestos.
Be safe around the asbestos in your home
Older houses and buildings may contain asbestos. In many cases, it is more dangerous to remove asbestos than to leave it intact. Breaking asbestos can cause fibers to be converted into air where they can be inhaled. Consult experts trained to detect asbestos in your home. These experts can test the air in the house to determine if asbestos poses a risk to your health. Do not try to remove asbestos from your home – hire a qualified expert. The Environmental Protection Agency provides consultancy on its website for treating asbestos in the home.