Mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium, a soft tissue which acts as a protective barrier by encasing many of the body’s vital organs. The disease is caused almost exclusively by exposure to carcinogenic asbestos fibers, and while its late stages are fairly recognizable, early stage mesothelioma can be very difficult to diagnose due to its indistinct symptoms. Development of the disease to a symptomatic, diagnosable stage can take several years or even decades, and once discovered its prognosis is usually grim.
The danger of asbestos lies partially in the peculiar shape of its microscopic fibers. The long, brittle, needle like fibers can become airborne very easily upon the aggravation of asbestos raw materials, dramatically increasing their likelihood of being accidentally inhaled. Asbestos fibers in the air can also settle on a variety of surfaces including food or water, making contamination through ingestion a further possibility.
Once inside the body, asbestos fibers are able to pass easily through many different types of tissue including the lung walls and possibly the intestines or other portions of the digestive tract. The asbestos fibers which the body is unable to pass eventually become entangled in the mesothelium. This entanglement begins a scarring process in the delicate tissue which, with time, can develop into a malignant tumor or tumors. These tumors then affect the underlying organs, hindering normal function and eventually causing organ failure.
The most common sites of mesothelioma are the mesothelium which surrounds the lungs, abdominal region and heart, known respectively as the pleura, the peritoneum and the pericardium. Symptoms of late stage mesothelioma vary depending on which site is affected. Pleural mesothelioma symptoms include chest pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing and blood in the sputum. Peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms include weight loss, abdominal pain, problems with bowel function, noticeable growths, and weakness.
Mesothelioma is generally considered a terminal cancer, and while palliative treatment options exist and are constantly improving, both cures and long term survival with the disease are exceedingly rare. Many organizations exist around the world who are dedicated to researching more effective treatments for mesothelioma patients. New approaches to combating the cancer, an improving understanding of its nature, as well as medicinal and scientific advances consistently provide new hope.