What is Mesothelioma?


Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that is usually caused by exposure to asbestos. The name, mesothelioma, comes from the mesothelium, the protective lining around the body’s organs. In mesothelioma, malignant cancer cells form in this lining. The U.S. National Cancer Institute calls this type of cancer “rare” and says “exposure to airborne asbestos particles” increases the risk of developing this disease.

Mesothelial cells are specialized cells lining the chest and abdominal cavities and the cavity around your heart. These cells also form a tissue, the mesothelium, which covers the outside of most organs. Mesothelioma is a cancer of these particular cells.

The mesothelium protects your organs by lubricating the organs so they can move around. For instance, when you breathe, the lungs move inside your chest cavity and the lubricating fluid produced by the mesothelium facilitates this process.

Usually, mesothelioma develops in the chest or abdominal area. In the chest, mesothelioma develops in the pleura, the lining around the lungs and chest wall, the pericardium, the sac around the heart or the heart itself. In the abdomen, mesothelioma develops in the peritoneum, the lining of the abdominal cavity. Of interest to men, mesothelioma can also develop in the sac surrounding the testicles, called the tunica vaginalis.

Mesothelioma usually occurs in people who have been exposed to asbestos on the job. Inhaling asbestos particles or just working around asbestos dust and fibers can cause mesothelioma. Also, second-hand exposure, such as handling clothing that has been exposed can cause mesothelioma. There is, however, no known association between smoking and mesothelioma.

Starting in the late 1920s and continuing until the present, there have been a number of individual and class-action lawsuits concerning asbestos causing illness, including mesothelioma.

Some symptoms of mesothelioma are chest pain, weight loss and shortness of breath, caused by pleural effusion. Chest x-rays and CT scans are helpful for a preliminary diagnosis, but a biopsy is necessary to confirm mesothelioma.

Treatments of mesothelioma include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, but the disease is still often fatal.