- 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
Did you know that doctors diagnose an estimated 3,000 cases of mesothelioma annually in the U.S.? The majority of those are traced to job-related exposures to asbestos. Most people have the pleural type, which forms on the lining of the lungs, but the cancer can also form around the lining of the abdomen or heart.
Although asbestos use in this country has dropped in recent decades, a steady number of people are still getting mesothelioma. That's because this cancer can take anywhere from 20 to 50 years after asbestos exposure before symptoms appear, and an oncologist can make a definitive diagnosis.
While there's no cure for mesothelioma and the outlook is generally poor, researchers have made significant progress in understanding the cancer and developing new treatment options and alternative therapies.
How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?
Mesothelioma typically develops after people are exposed 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 this cancer.
Asbestos inhalation occurs
Fibers lodge in mesothelial tissue
Fibers cause cellular damage, resulting in tumor growth
Fast Fact: 70-80 percent of people with mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos at work.
Asbestos can cause health complications when work duties or other activities disturb asbestos-containing materials and release fibers into the air. When we inhale or swallow these microscopic fibers, our bodies struggle to get rid of them. Over decades, the trapped fibers trigger biological changes that can cause inflammation, scarring and genetic damage that sometimes leads to cancer. The lengthy gap between asbestos exposure and diagnosis is called the latency period.
Asbestos fibers most often become trapped in the lining of the lungs, called the pleura. They also can collect 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.