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What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a serious type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, a type of naturally occurring minerals used in many construction and building products. Mesothelioma affects the linings of vital organs, including the lungs, stomach and heart.

Understanding Mesothelioma

People at risk of mesothelioma are usually men over the age of 60 who have been exposed to asbestos in places like construction areas, naval shipyards, and anywhere asbestos was used as a type of insulation.

The cancer can be aggressive, traveling to other vital organs in later stages.  There are three main types of mesothelioma:

  • Pleural Mesothelioma. This affects the lining of the lungs. It is caused by inhaling small needle-like asbestos fragments that then get stuck in the lung tissue. The body tries to rid itself of the fragments, but coughing does not bring up the tiny needle-like particles.  Over time, the asbestos particles cause inflammation to the lining of the lung (the pleura); this can result in cancer cells forming instead of normal cells.
  • Peritoneal Mesothelioma.  This is when the cancerous cells occur on the lining that surrounds the abdomen (called the peritoneum).  It is believed to be caused by swallowing asbestos fibers, leading to inflammation of the abdominal lining.
  • Pericardial Mesothelioma.  This type of mesothelioma affects the lining of the heart. It is the rarest form of mesothelioma. Researchers aren’t entirely sure how it develops, but asbestos fibers may travel through the bloodstream and become lodged in the pericardial lining.

History of Mesothelioma

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that doctors came to believe that cancer could develop in the lining of the lungs (the pleura). Until then it was believed that these cancers originated in other parts of the body and metastasized (or spread) to the pleural tissue. To confuse matters, the number of patients with mesothelioma was so low that it was difficult to research.

In 1909, the term “mesothelioma” was defined as cancer arising in the pleural tissue. In the early 1930s, doctors began to wonder why this type of cancer existed at all. In 1935, an English pathologist by the name of Steven Gloyne was the first to suggest that industrial exposure to asbestos was behind this type of cancer.

It wasn’t until 1960 that the first real study linking asbestos to mesothelioma was written — after millions of veterans and others working closely with the product had already been exposed.

Symptoms and Signs of Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma can mimic other lung or abdominal symptoms so that it may not be diagnosed right away.  Often, those who suffer from signs and symptoms of mesothelioma attribute the findings to other conditions and, it is only when the symptoms do not go away that doctors look closer and use things like x-rays and tissue samples that help make the diagnosis of mesothelioma.

Typical signs and symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include:

  • Shortness of breath at rest and with exertion
  • Coughing spells
  • Pain in the chest or back
  • Excessive sweatiness
  • Unexplained fevers
  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Facial and arm swelling
  • Hoarseness of the voice

If instead of pleural mesothelioma you have peritoneal mesothelioma, you may have these symptoms, all of which are hard to pin down:

  • Swelling from excess fluid in the abdomen
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Constipation
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Unexplained weight loss

Signs and symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma include the following:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fluid around the heart
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart failure

Because these symptoms are so similar to other, less serious conditions, it can take a while and several different diagnostic tests before the diagnosis of cancer is made and before it is narrowed down to mesothelioma.  Not everyone knows that they’ve been exposed to asbestos, particularly if they were exposed several decades ago while they were in the military.

Diagnosing Mesothelioma

Historically, mesothelioma wasn’t diagnosed until the patient became very ill and often the diagnosis wasn’t made until the person had died of the disease.  Today, doctors have many techniques to identify tumors in the outer parts of the lungs or in the peritoneal cavity. These tests include:

  • CT scanning
  • Chest X-rays
  • MRI scanning
  • Tissue samples
  • Biopsies

Doctors will evaluate the results of these tests to determine if mesothelioma is the cause of the pleural or peritoneal mass. From there, the doctors use surgery or X-ray studies to stage the tumor, which helps determine the proper treatment.

Learn more about Diagnosing Mesothelioma

The Four Stages of Pleural Mesothelioma

The stage of the mesothelioma cancer is a measure of how aggressive the cancer is and whether it has spread to other parts of the body. Early stage mesothelioma, in Stage 1 or Stage 2, is localized to a small area of the lungs. Early stage mesothelioma is often curable by surgically removing all of the tumor.

In later stages of the disease, such as Stage 3 or Stage 4, the tumor or tumors have enlarged and the cancer has traveled. At these stages, the cancer may end up traveling within the lungs and through the lymph system or bloodstream to land on distant areas in the bone or other tissues.

Stage 4 disease is considered incurable and often no surgery is performed. Instead, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are given to shrink the tumor and to prolong the patient’s life.  Having these treatments can prolong your life and improve the quality of it.

Learn more about the 4 Stages

The Link to Asbestos

It can take many years from the time of asbestos exposure to a mesothelioma diagnosis.  For example, if you were a U.S. veteran and were exposed to mesothelioma 40 to 60 years ago, now is the time when you should get checked for mesothelioma.

Many people were diagnosed between 1970 and 1985 because of the use of asbestos in World War II-era military construction.  It took from the time of World War II until years later for the cancer to develop.

Currently, only 2,500-3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in the U.S. every year.  This number has gone down over time because of asbestos-restricting laws that were enacted after the World War II era.

Veterans, especially those working in naval shipyards and construction areas, continued to be exposed to asbestos long after World War II was over and can still be considered at risk for developing mesothelioma.

Learn More about Veterans with Mesothelioma

Where to Get Treated for Mesothelioma

Because mesothelioma is so rare, many veterans choose to be treated at one of the hospitals in the U.S. that are well-equipped to handle the difficulties of the disease.

Both the Boston Veterans Administration Hospital and the Los Angeles Veterans Administration Hospital are considered top facilities for the management of mesothelioma.  The top mesothelioma doctors in the U.S. have many years of experience in treating this disease.

These doctors include:

These are doctors that are actively involved in standard treatment of mesothelioma as well as many clinical trials to find new ways to treat it.

You may be eligible to be part of a clinical trial of new medications and treatments that may benefit you and future sufferers of this rare type of cancer.

Find Top Doctors or VA Cancer Centers

Support Groups

Those VA medical centers have experience in treating mesothelioma as well as support groups for those who have been diagnosed. Support group meetings may cover topics such as:

  • The latest treatment options
  • Life expectancy with mesothelioma
  • Prognosis (outcome) of those who have mesothelioma
  • Ways to cope with having mesothelioma

In some cases, financial aid is available through the Veterans Administration to help veterans who developed mesothelioma because of military exposure to asbestos.

View Support Options

Sources & Author Edited: August 6, 2015

About the Writer

Senior Veteran Support Team

The Mesothelioma Veterans Center was created to provide information and assistance to veterans regarding treatment, clinical trials, and VA benefits for veterans suffering from asbestos illnesses. The MVC was founded by retired veterans and veterans advocates who have helped hundreds of veterans get approved for their VA benefits after developing mesothelioma or asbestos-related lung cancer from their asbestos exposure in the military.