Common Questions

Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer. "Mesothelioma" is the term used to describe a cancerous tumor which involves the mesothelial cells of an organ, usually the lungs, heart or abdominal organs. The most common type of mesothelioma is the pleural mesothelioma. The pleura is a thin membrane found between the lungs and the chest cavity. It provides a lubricated surface so that the lungs do not chafe against the chest walls. Thus, a pleural mesothelioma is often referred to as a "lung" cancer. Another form of mesothelioma is the peritoneal mesothelioma. The peritoneum is the membrane that encloses the organs of the abdomen. While peritoneal mesotheliomas are less common than pleural mesotheliomas, they tend to be more invasive, and thus result in a shorter life expectancy for the patient. Mesotheliomas have also been found in the stomach and other abdominal organs.

Mesotheliomas, like other types of cancer (e.g., adenocarcinoma), typically consist of two general types-benign and malignant. By far the most common mesothelioma is the diffuse malignant pleural mesothelioma. This type of tumor is invasive and very aggressive. It spreads quickly over the surface of the lungs, abdominal organs or heart. Life expectancy for victims of this disease typically ranges between four and twenty-four months, depending on the stage at which the disease is detected, the relative health and strength of the patient, and a variety of other factors. The average patient with diffuse malignant pleural mesothelioma survives for between four and twelve months from the onset of symptoms. With proper care, some victims have survived for several years.

Why Me?

A common question posed by persons afflicted with mesothelioma is, "Why did this disease develop in me?" The answer is nearly always the same-exposure to asbestos. When diagnosed in the United States, its onset is typically linked to a history of exposure to asbestos fiber. Asbestos is a mineral that was used for decades as a thermal insulation material. It has been widely known since the 1920's that asbestos is a carcinogen, which means that it causes cancer in humans. However, asbestos was used as an insulator until the mid-1970's, and is still present in massive quantities in many buildings today. Unfortunately, in many cases very little exposure is required to set this cancer in motion. Some of the occupations which are typically associated with the onset of mesothelioma later in life are as follows:

Automotive mechanics Mechanics
Boilermakers Millwrights
Bricklayers Operators
Carpenters Painters
Cement Finishers Paperworkers
Electricians Plasterers
Engineers Pipefitters
Foundry Workers Plumbers
Helpers Roofers
Insulators Sailors (Navy & Merchant Marine)
Laborers Shipyard workers
Lathers Steel and Sheetmetal workers
Machinists Welders

Asbestos has been used in a number of occupations in addition to those above. Furthermore, a number of former military personnel, particularly naval, came into contact with asbestos during their service. Massive amounts of asbestos were used in shipbuilding and commercial construction prior to the mid-1970's. Anyone involved with those industries is at a high risk for developing an asbestos-related disease, including mesothelioma. Exposure may have been direct or indirect, lengthy or brief. The typical exposure period is lengthy, but some persons with short but intense exposures develop mesothelioma. Mesothelioma can also occur from non-occupational exposure, as evidenced by manifestation of the disease in women whose exposure came from washing the clothing of men (father, husband, son) who worked with asbestos.

A unique feature of asbestos-related injuries is the long latency period between exposure to asbestos and the onset of the injury or disease. For mesotheliomas, the latency period is between 15 and 50 years, or more. That means that a person could have been exposed to asbestos 50 years ago, and develop mesothelioma today. The average mesothelioma latency period is approximately 35 - 40 years.

According to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 3,000 cases per year of malignant mesothelioma are being reported in the United States, and the incidence appears to be increasing. The disease is three times more common in men than in women. In men, the occurrence of mesothelioma is ten times higher in men between the ages of 60-70 as compared to men between the ages of 30-40. Occupational exposure to asbestos over the past fifty years in the United States is calculated to have occurred in approximately eight million people, and up to 300,000 new cases are expected to occur by the year 2030.

What are the Clinical Signs of Mesothelioma?

In general, the clinical presentation of this disease may include the following:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Pain in the chest and abdominal regions, which is generally unresponsive to analgesics
  • Progressive loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Pleural effusions (fluid in the chest cavity)
Management of mesothelioma depends largely on the staging of the tumor. Early diagnosis and surgical intervention may lengthen life expectancy. Depending on the age and physical condition of the patient, however, surgery may not be a viable option. In addition to surgical options, radiation treatment and chemotherapy may be helpful in the overall therapeutic program. Pain management and home care are typical alternatives in the later stages of the disease.

Where Do I Go From Here?

After diagnosis, it is important to understand your treatment options. Your doctor or oncologist will provide you with information on the treatments that are available to you.

It is also important to know about your legal rights. If you have mesothelioma, or any other asbestos-related disease, you were most likely exposed to asbestos. Many of the manufacturers of asbestos insulation products knew for decades that asbestos was hazardous, yet made a business decision not to warn people of those hazards. As a result, you may have a right of recovery against those manufacturers, which can help defray the costs of treatment and provide compensation for your pain and suffering.

For information on the legal implications of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, please visit our Know Your Rights section. You may also want to contact a mesothelioma lawyer.

For general information on available treatments and protocols, please visit our Treatment Options section. In addition, the Boston area is home to some of the world's finest hospitals and doctors who specialize in treating mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and similar asbestos-related diseases. Our Articles and Resources page contains links to help you learn more about and contact some of those facilities and doctors.