23 June 2017

Mesothelioma is an asbestos-related cancer that develops on the protective lining of the lungs, abdomen and heart. The disease is rare, with doctors diagnosing approximately 3,000 cases each year in the U.S.

Exposure to asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral once used heavily in construction and manufacturing, is the overwhelming cause of mesothelioma. The cancer carries a long latency period, meaning it can take 20 to 50 years after a person’s initial exposure to asbestos before symptoms arise.

When asbestos materials are disturbed, microscopic asbestos fibers can be inhaled or ingested. These fibers can become lodged in the protective lining of the lungs or abdomen, starting a chain reaction of biological changes that can eventually lead to cancer.

There are three main types of asbestos exposure — occupational, secondhand and environmental.

Occupational risk factors include:

  • Working in construction, demolition or home renovation.

  • Serving on military ships or bases built with asbestos.

  • Working in mechanic shops, power plants or warehouses where asbestos materials were used.

  • Serving as a first responder who may be exposed during a natural or manmade disaster.

Secondhand exposure occurs when workers unknowingly bring home toxic asbestos fibers on their clothes, shoes and equipment, putting their families at risk. Environmental exposures are common for those living near an asbestos mine or another asbestos deposit.

There are four types of mesothelioma:

Pleural mesothelioma

  • Most common, accounting for 70 percent of all cases.

  • Develops on the pleura, which is the lining of the lung.

  • Symptoms include trouble breathing, chronic coughing and chest pain.

Peritoneal mesothelioma

  • Second-most-common type.

  • Forms on the protective membrane surrounding the abdomen.

  • Early symptoms can include abdominal pain or swelling, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and constipation.   

Pericardial mesothelioma

  • Very rare, accounting for roughly 1 percent of all cases.

  • Develops on the pericardium, which is the lining of the heart.

  • Symptoms include irregular heartbeat, chest pain and difficulty breathing.

Testicular Mesothelioma

  • Accounts for less than 1 percent of all cases.

  • Develops on the membrane covering the testicles.

  • No set symptoms and often misdiagnosed as a more common condition such as a hernia.

Unlike some cancers, mesothelioma is 100 percent preventable. Although asbestos use is now highly regulated in the U.S., building materials containing the carcinogenic mineral are still prevalent in infrastructure built prior to 1980. Always take proper precautions to avoid exposure during home and office renovations.

Because of the long latency period, most people diagnosed with mesothelioma are in their 60s or 70s. Around 75 percent are men who worked in high-risk professions when asbestos use was at its peak.

It’s essential for anyone with a history of asbestos exposure to get regular screenings and to be mindful of early warning signs such as shortness of breath and pain in the chest or abdomen. Early detection is the best way to ensure the prognosis for mesothelioma is positive. Because the cancer is so rare, mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed as a less-serious condition or as a different type of cancer.

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Cancer Support Mallorca is a charity registered in Spain under number G57773749.