Did you know that doctors diagnose an estimated 3,000 cases of mesothelioma annually in the U.S.? The majority of those are traced to job-related exposures to asbestos. Most people have the pleural type, which forms on the lining of the lungs, but the cancer can also form around the lining of the abdomen or heart.
Although asbestos use in this country has dropped in recent decades, a steady number of people are still getting mesothelioma. That’s because this cancer can take anywhere from 20 to 50 years after asbestos exposure before symptoms appear, and an oncologist can make a definitive diagnosis.
While there’s no cure for mesothelioma and the outlook is generally poor, researchers have made significant progress in understanding the cancer and developing new treatment options and alternative therapies.
How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?
Mesothelioma typically develops after people are exposed to asbestos in the workplace – in industrial settings, shipyards, auto repair shops, old houses, schools and public buildings. While it usually takes long-term exposure to put someone at risk, short-term and one-time exposures are also known to cause this cancer.
Body Inhaling Asbestos
Asbestos inhalation occurs
Asbestos Fibers lodging in the mesothelial tissue
Fibers lodge in mesothelial tissue
Asbestos Fibers in the mesothelial tissue
Fibers cause cellular damage, resulting in tumor growth
Fast Fact: 70-80 percent of people with mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos at work.
Asbestos can cause health complications when work duties or other activities disturb asbestos-containing materials and release fibers into the air. When we inhale or swallow these microscopic fibers, our bodies struggle to get rid of them. Over decades, the trapped fibers trigger biological changes that can cause inflammation, scarring and genetic damage that sometimes leads to cancer. The lengthy gap between asbestos exposure and diagnosis is called the latency period.
Asbestos fibers most often become trapped in the lining of the lungs, called the pleura. They also can collect in the lining of the abdominal cavity (peritoneum) or heart (pericardium). Once fibers cause biological damage, the stage is set for the decades-long latency period for the development of malignant mesothelioma.
Learn More about How Asbestos Causes Cancer
Pleural mesothelioma is a rare and malignant cancer caused by asbestos. Mesothelioma tumors form in the pleura, a thin membrane of cells that line the lungs and chest wall.
How Is Pleural Mesothelioma Unique?
As the most common asbestos related cancer, malignant pleural mesothelioma accounts for approximately 80 – 90 percent of all mesothelioma cases. Pleural mesothelioma differs from other types in four primary ways:
Location: Pleural mesothelioma is located in the linings of the lungs and the chest wall, known as the pleura.
Symptoms: As the disease mostly affects the lungs, the primary symptoms affect the respiratory system, such as shortness of breath, or the thoracic cavity, such as chest pain.
Treatment: The standard treatment for pleural mesothelioma is surgery, which often includes removal of some or all of the pleura and possibly part of the lung, combined with chemotherapy and/or radiation.
Survival: The prognosis for pleural mesothelioma is poor, with a median survival time of about 1 year. However, there are cases of long-term survival, in some cases as long as 20 years.
What is the Prognosis for Pleural Mesothelioma?
As with all types of mesothelioma, prognosis for pleural mesothelioma is relatively poor. For patients who do not receive treatment, the median survival is only six months; however, certain types of treatment can improve prognosis significantly.
For example, studies have shown that patients who receive a cocktail chemotherapy treatment of pemetrexed (Alimta) and cisplatin have a longer median survival time (12.1 months) than chemotherapy using cisplatin alone (9.1 months).
The biggest factors affecting the prognosis of pleural mesothelioma patients are:
Tumor size and staging
Cell type (histopathology)
Patient’s gender and age
Stage of the cancer
In general, patients who are women, younger, or have an early-stage diagnosis (Stage 1 or Stage 2) have a better prognosis than those who are men, older, or have a late-stage diagnosis.