- Causes: Asbestos exposure, radiation exposure, SV40 polio vaccine
- Latency Period: It can take 20-50 years after asbestos exposure for mesothelioma to develop.
- Number of Cases: 2,000 to 3,000 in the U.S. annually
- Pleural Mesothelioma: Shortness of breath, chest pains, dry cough, pleural effusion
- Peritoneal Mesothelioma: Abdominal pain, abdominal swelling, weight loss
Most mesothelioma patients are diagnosed with the pleural disease type, which forms on the lining of the lungs. The cancer also can develop around the abdominal cavity or heart. Doctors diagnose an estimated 3,000 cases of mesothelioma annually in the U.S., and the majority of those are traced to job-related asbestos exposure.
Although asbestos use declined significantly in recent decades in this country, the incidence of malignant mesothelioma remains steady. That difference can be traced to the distinct latency period linked to the cancer. The disease can take anywhere from 20 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos before it shows obvious symptoms and an oncologist can make a definitive diagnosis. While no cure for the disease exists and the prognosis is typically poor, researchers made significant progress in recent years in understanding the cancer and developing new treatment options and alternative therapies.
How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?
Mesothelioma typically develops after exposure to asbestos in the workplace – in industrial settings, shipyards, auto repair shops, old houses, schools and public buildings. While it usually takes long-term exposure to put someone at risk, short-term and one-time exposures are also known to cause mesothelioma cancer.
Asbestos inhalation occurs
Fibers lodge in mesothelial tissue
Fibers cause cellular damage, resulting in tumor growth
Fast Fact: 70-80 percent of all mesothelioma cases are caused by asbestos exposure at work.
When microscopic asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed, the human body has difficulty destroying or getting rid of them. Over decades, the trapped fibers cause biological changes that result in inflammation, scarring and genetic damage. The area most susceptible to these fibers is the lining of the lungs, called the pleura, although fibers also can become trapped in the lining of the abdominal cavity (peritoneum) or heart (pericardium). Once fibers cause biological damage, the stage is set for the decades-long latency period for the development of malignant mesothelioma.