By Joan Koczor
Mesothelioma (me-zoe-thee-lee-O-muh) is a rare type of cancer of the mesothelium caused by exposure to asbestos. The mesothelium is a thin membrane that protects and lubricates different body cavities, such as the chest and abdominal cavities.
Men 60 years and older are often diagnosed several years after exposure. Women have contracted this disease from washing their husbands’ clothes, although the husband – exposed to asbestos – does not contract this disease.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that resembles a rock in its natural form. The rock will split into fibers, which are resistant to heat, fire and chemicals. Considered a natural product, it was widely used in the United States until the late 1970s. Over 3,000 products containing asbestos were in general use until the late 1980s.
Asbestos materials have been used in every branch of the military until the late 1970s. As a result, 30 percent of veterans have been diagnosed with mesothelioma.
It takes 20 to 50 years to develop and occurs in the lining of the lungs, chest, abdomen and heart.
There are three types of mesothelioma:
- Pleural: Cancer of the lungs which is the most common because most asbestos fibers are inhaled. Symptoms may include shortness of breath and chest pain.
- Peritoneal: Cancer of the abdomen. It is caused by ingesting asbestos fibers. Symptoms may include weight loss and nausea.
- Pericardial: Cancer surrounding the heart. This is the rarest form and is rarely diagnosed while the patient is still alive.
Mesothelioma is often mistaken for less serious conditions. If you have been exposed to asbestos and are experiencing symptoms attributed to this disease, consult your family doctor. They will perform the basic tests and X-rays. Based on the results, your doctor will refer you to a radiologist who will do extensive testing – X-ray, CAT scan, PET scan and CT scan. These tests are used in the diagnosis of this disease.
A surgical biopsy is done and sent to a pathologist for review. A pathologist will review fluid or tissue biopsy samples to determine cell type. If the results of these tests determine further treatment is required, a qualified specialist will be suggested. One who has a wide range of extensive experience with mesothelioma cases.
A pulmonologist specializes in lung disease and evaluates lung function. A gastroenterologist specializes in disease of the digestive system and tissues which occur in the abdominal region. A cardiologist specializes in heart defects and other heart disorders.
Only 20 U.S. doctors specialize in the treatment of this disease.
The Mesothelioma Organization offers a doctor-match program, saving time and expense to those seeking treatment. Patient advocates are also available to answer questions and provide information.
Joan Koczor is a senior advocate and a member of the Age-Friendly Maricopa Advisory Committee. The Mesothelioma Guide provided information for this article.
This column appears in the June issue of InMaricopa.