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Mesothelioma: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that affects the cells of the mesothelium, a protective membrane that lines many of the body's organs. Mesothelioma most commonly affects the lining of the lungs, but can affect the lining of the heart as well as male reproductive organs.

There are two main types of mesothelioma; pleural mesothelioma, which occurs in the chest cavity, and peritoneal mesothelioma, which occurs in the abdomen. Peritoneal mesothelioma cancer is relatively rare, with only 2,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the U.S.

What Causes Mesothelioma?

Exposure to asbestos is the most common cause of mesothelioma. Approximately 70 to 80 percent of all diagnosed cases of mesothelioma can be traced back to some form of asbestos exposure.

Asbestos is a natural fiber that was used in many industries dating back to the 1800s. The building and construction industry commonly used asbestos for insulation and fireproofing. The shipbuilding industry widely used asbestos during WWII to wrap and line the engines of ships. Asbestos at one time was used in the auto industry to line brake shoes.

Because of its wide use, asbestos exposure can happen anywhere. Despite it being known to be a dangerous product by the early 1900s, many companies continued use of asbestos. Fortunately, it is only when the asbestos is disturbed that tiny particles are released into the air that can then be inhaled into the body, creating the risk of later developing mesothelioma.

Symptoms of Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is difficult to diagnose because the symptoms commonly indicate other diseases and sometimes don't occur until 30 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos. Many who are diagnosed with lung cancer but have had some exposure to asbestos in their lifetime may actually have mesothelioma.

Some symptoms of mesothelioma are:

  • Shortness or inability to catch one's breath
  • Tightness or pain in the chest or below the ribcage
  • A cough that does not go away and actually worsens over time
  • Coughing up blood
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Unexplained weight loss

A physical exam and chest x-ray are often the first steps in diagnosing mesothelioma in someone who has been exposed to asbestos. The x-ray itself will not show the presence of asbestos fibers in the lungs, but can assist in identifying the early signs of mesothelioma.

Treatment Options

Treatment of and prognosis for mesothelioma patients depends on at what point the disease is diagnosed. Localized mesothelioma, or Stage I mesothelioma, has generally not yet spread to the rest of the body and is found as cancer cells in the lining of the chest wall, lungs, diaphragm or heart. Advanced mesothelioma, or Stage II, III or IV mesothelioma, has generally spread into the lymph nodes or other parts of the body to some degree.

Doctors may treat mesothelioma in several ways: removing the affected tissue, using chemotherapy or radiation to target and shrink or kill the cancer cells. There is no cure for mesothelioma and a patient's life expectancy is affected by various factors including symptoms and their severity, medical history, age at the time of diagnosis and cigarette use.

If you've been exposed to asbestos and have been diagnosed with lung cancer or mesothelioma, a personal injury attorney can help you recover the expenses needed to treat your cancer.

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