What is Mesothelioma?
"What is mesothelioma?" That's a question oncologists often hear immediately upon delivering a diagnosis of this disease. The short answer is, mesothelioma is a cancer that is directly traceable to repeated or long-term exposure to asbestos. Usually, though, a longer explanation is needed.
The disease gets its name because cancerous tumors form in the mesothelium – the lining – of an internal organ. In the case of mesothelioma, the tumors form in the lining of the lung, the lining of the abdomen, the lining of heart or the lining of a testicle.
All four types of the cancer are aggressive. Cancer cells usually spread rapidly, and the life expectancy of someone with the disease is between eight and 18 months. Through clinical trials and experimental therapies, specialists seek more effective treatments to extend life expectancy and, they hope, to find a cure.
A primary reason the survival rates of all types of this disease are so low is that most diagnoses are made in stage III or stage IV – a direct result of mesothelioma having mild, often undetectable, symptoms in its early stages of development.
Who Gets Mesothelioma?
People believed to be in the high risk category for getting mesothelioma are those who were exposed to asbestos on a regular basis (six months or more) while on the job.
Among the list of occupations closely linked to mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are:
- Military veterans (especially the U.S. Navy)
- Construction workers
- Demolition or renovation crews
- Auto mechanics
- Shipyard workers
- Asbestos mine workers or millers
- Boiler workers
- Asbestos manufacturing plant workers
People who remember handling asbestos or asbestos-like materials, or those who recall being exposed to thick clouds of asbestos-containing dust while on the job, are at a higher risk for developing mesothelioma. Recently, rescue workers and cleanup crews involved in the removal of debris from the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks in New York City have reported asbestos-related symptoms and lung complications.
Notable Cases of Mesothelioma
- Merlin Olsen, former NFL football star, sportscaster and actor
- Steve McQueen, American actor
- Warren Zevon, American singer and songwriter
- Paul Gleason, American film and television actor
- Ron Cyrus, father of country music singer Billy Ray Cyrus
- Bruce Vento, U.S. Congressman
- Army Archerd, famous columnist for Variety magazine
What Causes Mesothelioma?
In most cases, mesothelioma can be linked to a history of asbestos exposure, which may occur in the environment, in the workplace or from certain products. If asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested, the fibers can lodge in the lining of the lungs or other internal organs, causing chronic inflammation and mesothelioma, in some cases.
Fast Facts About Mesothelioma
How is Mesothelioma Treated?
The choice of treatment for mesothelioma depends on many factors, including the location of tumors, the stage of the cancer, the patient's overall health, treatment history and the type of mesothelioma. Treatment generally consists of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, alternative treatments or some combination of therapies.
How Do I Pay for Treatment?
If diagnosed with mesothelioma, individuals should consider taking the necessary steps to protect themselves both legally and financially. Mesothelioma treatment is very expensive, and insurance companies may not always cover the cost of experimental treatments or certain diagnostic tests that may be recommended by a specialist. Patients who do not have medical insurance will face an even harder battle.
In some cases, financial assistance may be available to patients who were wrongfully exposed to asbestos while on the job. Some corporations have set up trust funds specifically for people injured by their asbestos products. Additionally, veterans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces between 1940 and 1970 may be eligible for Veteran Affairs (VA) benefits that cover asbestos-related diseases.
Can I Live With Mesothelioma?
While mesothelioma is known to be an aggressive cancer, it is not necessarily resistant to treatment. Some mesothelioma patients have lived for many years with the disease, learning to manage symptoms using a personalized treatment plan that works in their situation.
Those who have lived with this disease often talk about the importance of managing stress and other treatment-related worries in a healthy way.