Mesothelioma FAQs: Frequently Asked Questions about Mesothelioma

What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a very rare cancer that can affect the linings of the stomach, lungs, and heart. Every organ has a thin membrane around it, which protects it from the other organs, and mesothelioma is a cancer that develops in that lining. It is caused by exposure to asbestos.

Is mesothelioma the same thing as lung cancer?

No, actually it’s not. Mesothelioma develops on the outside lining of the lung, whereas lung cancer generally develops inside the lung. There are different cell lines. They create different forms of cancer. People discuss mesothelioma as lung cancer mainly because of the close proximity to the lung. But it’s two different forms of cancer, and the treatments available for lung cancer vs. mesothelioma are different.

Does everyone exposed to asbestos develop mesothelioma?

Absolutely not. It’s a very rare cancer. It happens roughly 2,000 times a year in our country. There’s no rhyme nor reason as to who gets it, but people who were exposed to more asbestos have a higher risk of developing the disease than people who were exposed to less. You can be exposed to asbestos, but it’s extremely rare to develop mesothelioma.

Is mesothelioma preventable?

Mesothelioma is preventable in the sense that asbestos companies never should have used asbestos, thereby exposing millions of people to the deadly fiber. Mesothelioma is not preventable in the sense that it takes so long to develop. Mesothelioma has about a 40-year latency period. It was preventable from the company’s end by not putting it into our environment, but it’s not preventable on the worker’s end for those already exposed to asbestos. Going forward, you don’t want to be exposed to asbestos, but there’s nothing you can do about past exposure.

Is asbestos still used today?

Asbestos is still used if you look at the world market. It’s still used in developing countries, and it’s still being mined in certain places such as Canada. It is still used in specialty applications such as the aerospace industry when protection from extreme heat is a consideration. But in consumer applications in the US, it’s not being used anymore.

How do I know if there is asbestos in my home or workplace?

The best way to determine if there is asbestos in your home or workplace is through research. Things that were built in the fifties, sixties, and even the seventies and eighties may contain certain amounts of asbestos. Asbestos can be found in dry wall, ceiling tiles, floor tiles, different types of cements, siding, or roofing shingles of homes or other structures. Newer products on the market today do not use asbestos, but if items were installed 30 or 40 years ago, there is a chance they may contain asbestos. It’s best to assume that an old house might contain asbestos and to protect yourself from dust while doing home improvements or repairs. You shouldn’t conduct any construction, even minor, unless you’ve tested to see if there’s asbestos present.

What are the symptoms of mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma has a wide range of symptoms. Some of the first symptoms of mesothelioma are a dull pain in the back or the chest or difficulty breathing. Sometimes the body, when the cancer just starts to develop, will start to fill with fluids. Fluid puts pressure against the lungs and makes it very difficult to breathe. Some asbestos symptoms are similar to lung cancer symptoms, such as shortness of breath with either exertion or at rest, cold-like symptoms, and a deep cough. Anything along those lines can be a symptom of mesothelioma, which makes it very difficult to detect because it can be easily dismissed as simply a cold.

If I have shortness of breath or trouble breathing, should I be concerned that I have mesothelioma?

No. If you are suffering from shortness of breath, there are many things that might be keeping you from breathing correctly. One of the symptoms of mesothelioma is shortness of breath, but that’s also a symptom of colds, pneumonia, and lung cancer. There are a number of afflictions that can cause shortness of breath. If you are experiencing this, you should consult your personal physician just as you would with anything else. When you speak with your physician and explain your symptoms, they’re going to know what to look for. If you were ever exposed to asbestos, you want to make sure that your doctors are aware of it so they can assess your risk of potentially developing mesothelioma.

Can I have mesothelioma but show no symptoms?

Yes. Mesothelioma is what we call a long latency period disease, meaning that it can take 20 to 40 years to develop. The exact molecular process controlling how and when a regular cell turns into a cancer cell is not completely known. The hypothesis is that an asbestos fiber makes contact with a cell, changes the DNA of that cell, and then that cell becomes active 20 to 40 years later. It’s very difficult to detect mesothelioma until it has expanded and grown into Stage Four cancer.

What is asbestosis, and can it progress into mesothelioma?

Asbestosis is a non-malignant form of asbestos-related diseases. It’s essentially a difficulty breathing related to asbestos in the lung tissue. When asbestos gets into the lung, it is not expelled and damages lung tissue, causing scarring and making it difficult to breathe. Lung capacity is reduced because scar tissue cannot expand and contract as readily as healthy lung tissue. Asbestosis itself does not progress into mesothelioma. These are two distinct forms of disease. But the fact that you have asbestosis proves that you were exposed to asbestos, and asbestos fibers are the root cause of mesothelioma.

Is there a cure for mesothelioma?

It depends on who you ask, but generally speaking, there is no cure for mesothelioma. The goal with mesothelioma is to treat the patient to slow the progression of the disease and improve quality of life. Doctors will attempt to stop the spread of the tumor, isolate it chemically or through oncology practices, and/or remove as much of it as possible and maintain a relatively small size of that tumor for the rest of the person’s life. Remission, in the case of mesothelioma, means a tumor that is not growing or spreading.

How is mesothelioma diagnosed?

The first step in diagnosing mesothelioma is to talk to your personal physician. They are the ones who know your health and your body best. Generally speaking, if there’s a pain in your chest, your doctor will order a chest x-ray or a CT scan to identify any abnormalities inside the chest. If the doctor sees an area that they’re concerned about, a pathologist will come in and do a biopsy to remove a small amount of tissue for analysis. Then the pathologist will look at those cells underneath the microscope. The pathologist is trained to look at the cells and determine what they are. A confirmed diagnosis of mesothelioma can only be made in this way.

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Can mesothelioma be misdiagnosed?

Yes. The most common forms of misdiagnosis of mesothelioma involve flu-like or cold-like symptoms that are misdiagnosed as a cold, pneumonia, or a bacterial infection. Also, there are times when a biopsy is performed and the pathologist doesn’t get the tumor (because the cancer has not spread to the biopsy site) and misdiagnoses the problem as something else. Mesothelioma is sometimes misdiagnosed as a different type of cancer. Mesothelioma is very rare and sometimes doctors are not familiar with it. There are only a handful of clinics in the country that specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mesothelioma. Often, if you’re in a small health care market, the pathologist will send your tissue to the Mayo Clinic, Sloan Kettering, or an MD Anderson type of facility to have experts make a more practiced analysis. Sometimes mesothelioma can go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed until a medical professional familiar with mesothelioma actually sees the tissue taken at a biopsy.

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