Malignant mesothelioma is a tumor of the lining of the lungs (as is the case in its most common form, pleural mesothelioma), the peritoneal cavity (the lining of the abdominal cavity) or the pericardium (the lining of the heart) that can spread to other parts of the body and can be deadly. It is a relatively rare tumor with roughly 2000 cases diagnosed in the United States each year. It can be difficult for a doctor to diagnose because it presents with symptoms that can be difficult to describe or even notice and it has a long latency period between exposure and disease. The symptoms include cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, and weight loss, to name a few.
Symptoms of mesothelioma often do not develop for 30 to 50 years after the original exposure to asbestos, so oftentimes the patient cannot even remember when exposure occurred. To diagnose mesothelioma, the physician must get a detailed history and physical exam and then get imaging studies such as x-ray and CT. Then, a biopsy of the mass or a removal of the fluid around the lungs can be done to look for the mesothelioma cells. Once one is diagnosed with mesothelioma, sadly the average life span is only eight to twelve months. The three options for treatment are surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
Mesothelioma has been proven many times to be highly correlated to asbestos exposure. The exposure to asbestos is through inhalation in the respiratory tract. The asbestos particles are very small and needle-like and travel to the very end of the respiratory tract where they become embedded and can cause cancer years later. In fact, in 70 percent of all cases, asbestos exposure has been found in patients with mesothelioma and it is presumed that all mesothelioma cases are related to asbestos inhalation, but that the other 30 percent just cannot be proven. Asbestos has been found in many different objects employed in everyday life, especially cement, brake linings, roof shingles, flooring products, textiles, and insulation. People who regularly work with these items are at the highest risk of developing this form of asbestos cancer, especially if they smoke. The first people diagnosed with mesothelioma and who had a provable job related asbestos exposure were shipwrights in World War II.
Auto mechanics are one set of workers that are presumed to bear a higher risk of mesothelioma. Auto workers are potentially exposed to short chrysotile fibers during installation and repair of asbestos-containing brakes. Asbestos is used in brakes to serve as a heat control. Brake replacement involves two potential opportunities for release of asbestos fibers: small amounts of chrysotile asbestos may be present in the brake wear debris, and asbestos can be released during grinding and beveling of new asbestos brake linings or pads. So far, studies of mechanics have not been conclusive as to whether they do in fact have an increased risk of the cancer, but experts continue to debate and study this issue. The families of auto mechanics might also be at risk for mesothelioma, as the asbestos fibers get embedded in the clothes of the worker. When he or she goes home, the fibers travel along. Then, the family breathes in the fibers and receives the same exposure. If you work in an industry or have worked in an industry with asbestos exposure and have any symptoms or any concerns about mesothelioma, please talk to your doctor about your concerns.