Mesothelioma Myths and Mysteries Uncovered by Specialists in Recent Report

Dr. Harvey Pass & Dr. Michelle Carbone

Researchers diving into mesothelioma can feel like they’re navigating a maze filled with dark hallways, mirrors and dead ends. The more they walk, the more they realize how difficult their job is.

The medical community hasn’t solved many of the disease’s mysteries — such as whether Simian Virus 40 plays any role in causation — and unaware health professionals too often perpetuate the myths about the cancer.

A report recently released in its entirety in PubMed (an online database that compiles medical literature) — titled “Malignant Mesothelioma: Fact, Myths and Hypotheses” — seeks to address the known, the unknown and the misunderstandings about the asbestos-caused cancer.

Two primary myths are debunked in the report, and the authors discuss a bevy of facts in addition to presenting the latest stats and hypotheses involving the causation and development of the disease.

Report Analyzed 170 Studies

More than 170 studies were analyzed by specialists such as Michele Carbone, M.D. and Harvey Pass, M.D., to produce the report. Comprehensive reports of this nature are rare in the world of mesothelioma research. This particular report is unique in its scope, and it even approaches the politics of death prevention. The authors boldly point out that the United States has invested billions of dollars to prevent the death of U.S. citizens by terrorist attacks, but only a few million to find a cure for the cancer.

The report reads: “Over the past 10 years, less than 5,000 people died in terrorist attacks in the U.S. During the same decade, about 25,000 to 30,000 U.S. citizens died of [mesothelioma], which are largely preventable deaths. Yet, the U.S. invests less than $2 to $3 million dollars/year to support medical research aimed at developing strategies to prevent or cure.”

During the next 40 years, more than 100,000 Americans are expected to pass away from the disease. And with mortality rates predicted to rise by 5 to 10 percent per year for the next two to three decades in industrialized countries, the cry for funding and the call to ban asbestos couldn’t be more important.

Myths Can Affect Treatment and Funding

Myths surrounding any cancer can place a heavy burden on progress, especially if the myth influences the amount of perceived funding necessary to drive research and treatment advances.

The first myth discredited in the report — that malignant mesothelioma will soon disappear — has dramatically affected funding interest for the cancer. In previous decades, some assumed that incidence of the cancer would fade away as the use of asbestos declined.

That assumption failed to consider that natural deposits of asbestos exist, that asbestos fibers persist in the environment once released from products, that asbestos hasn’t been banned in the United States or many other countries, and that mineral fibers similar to asbestos (such as erionite) also cause the disease.

The second myth busted in the report — that tumors grow slowly and take decades to produce symptoms — addresses a characteristic of mesothelioma that is initially perplexing to everyone learning about the cancer.

Mesothelioma doesn’t grow slowly at all. The tumors actually grow fast once formed, and this limits treatment options because the cancer is commonly in an advanced stage once diagnosed.

Cancer development is getting mixed up with how long it takes for asbestos to cause damage. Usually a decade or more transpires before the fibers cause an asbestos-related disease. Following the initial exposure to asbestos, about a decade passes before asbestosis develops, and around three to five decades pass before mesothelioma begins to develop.

“This distinction is important because it implies that there is a long period of time during which it may be possible to arrest or delay the carcinogenic process,” explain the authors.

Clearing the Dust

Offering the latest data and theories, the report clarifies conflicting research tracing back to the 1970s on topics such as mesothelioma in women, how asbestos causes the cancer, and how genetics may play a role in risk.

One highlight of the report that the public will appreciate is that only prolonged exposures to asbestos increase the risk of getting the disease. Single and limited exposures to asbestos aren’t a serious risk factor. The authors want “to reassure individuals who may have had sporadic exposure and who are concerned about their own risk of developing [malignant mesothelioma].”

Another positive note in the report — that medical advancements have increased median survival for patients with peritoneal mesothelioma from nine months to five years or more — offers hope that treatment breakthroughs could one day do the same for pleural mesothelioma.

Did you encounter myths or conflicting information when you first started learning about mesothelioma? Do you think the U.S. government should allocate more funding for research? Leave a comment below, or visit our Facebook page.


Joining the team in February 2008 as a writer and editor, Michelle Whitmer has translated medical jargon into patient-friendly information at Asbestos.com for more than eight years. Michelle is a registered yoga teacher, a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, and was quoted by The New York Times on the risks of asbestos exposure. If you have a story idea for Michelle, please email her at michelle@asbestos.com.

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