What starts as a piece of fibrous fluff from an asbestos rock can develop into mesothelioma, a rare and often fatal cancer of the tissue that lines the internal organs.
Since the early part of the 20th century, physicians have recognized asbestos cancer as a deadly cancer that is caused by asbestos exposure and typically takes decades to appear.
What is Asbestos
Centuries ago, early man discovered that asbestos strands have enormous resistance to heat, chemicals and fire. In early years, asbestos was used abundantly. It was woven into fabric, mixed into concrete and used in tools. Even today, it is widely used in manufacturing and construction applications including roofing materials, insulation and floor tiles.
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Left alone, asbestos is not harmful. But when this mineral is fractured, it splinters into microscopic brittle and fluffy strands. These fibers can linger in the air for long periods. When an unsuspecting victim breathes in these fibers, the fibers become trapped and move throughout the body via the bloodstream, lymphatic or gastrointestinal system. Once entrapped, the particles form irritations in the mesothelium and eventually form tumors.
The first symptoms appear between 10 and 50 years after the initial asbestos exposure. The whole process could take up to 50 years. The whole time, the victim has no idea the cancer is forming and spreading. The first diagnostic test, which is typically a biopsy, is the first indicator of disease.
Location and Type of Cancer
Mesothelioma is named according to the area where it primarily started:
- Pleural - The pleura is the membranous covering over the lungs and thoracic cavity. Pleural Mesothelioma begins in the pleura and can spread to other areas of the chest cavity. Researchers think this form of cancer begins in the lungs. It is the most common type of mesothelioma, accounting for up to 75 percent of all asbestos related cancer diagnoses. It is generally the most treatable. Common symptoms include shortness of breath, unexplained fevers and chest pains. Other symptoms include reduced chest expansion, harsh breathing sounds and a dry or wheezing cough.
- Peritoneal - This type of mesothelioma attacks the lining that surrounds the abdominal organs. Some researchers think that inhaled asbestos moves into the lymph nodes to reach the abdominal area, while others think that peritoneal mesothelioma begins after asbestos is ingested and the fibers travel through the gastrointestinal system. It is the second most common variety of mesothelioma, accounting for between 10 and 20 percent of all mesothelioma diagnoses. Symptoms include abdominal swelling, bowel obstructions, appetite and weight loss and abdominal pain.
- Pericardial - This form of asbestos cancer begins in the lining that surrounds the heart, called the pericardium. Along with testicular mesothelioma, this is a rare form of the disease, accounting for about one percent of diagnoses. Pericardial mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed as heart conditions because symptoms include heart palpitations and chest pains.
Dealing with a Diagnosis
Decades ago, this diagnosis was grim. Today, advancements in technology and science have made treating the disease more positive and effective.
Even though mesothelioma is not curable, patients today have a better chance of living constructive lives with the disease. The general life expectancy is about a year following a diagnosis, but the overall prognosis depends on a number of factors including the patient’s overall health, age at diagnosis and the type of cancer. In all cases, the best chance of recovery from mesothelioma is early medical intervention.
Stages of Mesothelioma
One of the biggest determining factors in a prognosis is the stages of the tumor advancement:
- Stage I - If the cancer is located on one side, surgery may be the best option to remove it. The prognosis is the highest with an estimated life span of up to three years.
- Stage II - When the cancer has spread from its original site to nearby lymph nodes, surgery intervention may still be an option. The estimated life span is about two years.
- Stage III - At this advanced stage of the cancer, treatment is mostly for pain relief and increasing life expectancy. The estimated life span is about a year.
- Stage IV - Treatment for this end-stage cancer is focused on pain relief. Surgery is typically not an option. The estimated life expectancy is about 6 1/2 months.
American Cancer Society. “What is Malignant Mesothelioma?” Retrieved from http://www.cancer.org/cancer/malignantmesothelioma/detailedguide/malignant-mesothelioma-malignant-mesothelioma
Medline Plus. Mesothelioma. Retrieved from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/mesothelioma.html