Mesothelioma: Questions and Answers

Q. What is Mesothelioma?

A. The National Cancer Institute states that: “Malignant mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, is a disease in which cancer (malignant) cells are found in the sac lining the chest (the pleura), the lining of the abdominal cavity (the peritoneum), or the lining around the heart (the pericardium).”

Q. How do you get Mesothelioma?

A. Mesothelioma is almost exclusive to asbestos exposure. Many people with malignant mesothelioma were exposed in the course of their jobs, or while serving their country in the military. Others were exposed to asbestos in a household environment, often without knowing it.

Q. How much exposure does it take to get the disease?

A. Workers with heavy, prolonged exposure are at the greatest risk, however, cases of mesothelioma have been documented with very minimal exposure.

Q. How long does it take after exposure for the disease to show up?

A. People exposed in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s are now being diagnosed with mesothelioma because of the long latency period of asbestos disease.

Q. How common is mesothelioma?

A. According to the American Cancer Society, 2,000 to 3,000 people per year in the United States are diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma. Click here for more statistics on mesothelioma. More general cancer statistics.

The medical journal, Pulmonary Perspectives, has also published an excellent article on the prevalence of mesothelioma.

Q. Is mesothelioma (also sometimes referred to as “asbestos cancer”) the same as asbestosis?

A. No. Asbestosis is a non-cancerous form of asbestos disease, typified by scarring in the lower lobes of the lungs bilaterally (on both sides). Anyone who has asbestosis should monitor their health regularly, since this scarring can worsen over time. Mesothelioma is a malignancy (cancer) of the pleura, or lining of the lung, or the peritoneum, or lining of the abdominal cavity.

Q. What are the symptoms of mesothelioma?

A. Sometimes resembling viral pneumonia, pleural mesothelioma may cause shortness of breath, chest pain and/or persistent cough; some patients show no symptoms at all. A chest x-ray may show a build-up of fluid, or pleural effusion. The right lung is affected 60% of the time, with involvement in both lungs being seen in approximately 5% of patients at the time of diagnosis. Less common symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include fever, night sweats and weight loss. Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma may include swelling in the abdomen due to a build-up of fluid (ascites), nausea, weight loss, bowel obstruction, anemia or swelling of the feet.

Q. How is mesothelioma diagnosed?

A. While mesothelioma may be suspected through an x-ray or CT scan, it can only be definitively diagnosed through pathological examination of a tissue sample.

Q. How is mesothelioma treated?

A. Conventional methods of treatment such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation may be used (usually in combination with one another). In addition, newer approaches such as photodynamic therapy, immunotherapy, and gene therapy are under investigation. The Mesothelioma Web is an excellent source of mesothelioma treatment options, and also offers information on specialists and the newest clinical trials. Also, look at our asbestos cancer glossary.

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