What is mesothelioma?
Malignant mesothelioma is the most serious of all asbestos-related diseases. Although uncommon, mesothelioma is no longer considered rare. Making a correct mesothelioma diagnosis is particularly difficult for doctors because the disease does not respond well to therapy. There is no known cure for mesothelioma, but treatments such as mesothelioma radiation and chemotherapy have helped to improve the typical mesothelioma prognosis.
The chest cavity, abdominal cavity, and the cavity around the heart are surrounded by a layer of specialized mesothelial cells. Most other internal organs are also covered by these cells. The tissue formed by these cells is called mesothelium.
A special protective lubricating fluid that allows organs to move around is produced by the mesothelium. This protective fluid helps the lungs to move without resistance inside the chest cavity while breathing. The medical name for the mesothelium of the chest is the pleura and the medical name for the mesothelium of the abdomen is the peritoneum. The mesothelium of the "sac-like" space around the heart is called the pericardium.
A malignant (cancerous) tumor of the mesothelium is called a malignant mesothelioma. As most mesothelial tumors are cancerous, malignant mesothelioma is often simply called mesothelioma. Mesothelioma tumors can also be benign (noncancerous) but benign mesotheliomas are much more rare.
Mesothelioma was recognized as a tumor of the pleura, peritoneum and pericardium in the late 1700's. However it was not until much later, in 1960, that this particular type of tumor was described in more detail and even more importantly, its association with asbestos exposure was recognized. The first report linking mesothelioma to asbestos exposure was written by J.C.Wagner, and described 32 cases of workers in the "Asbestos Hills" in South Africa. Since then, the relationship between mesothelioma and asbestos exposure has been confirmed in studies around the world.
The incidence of mesothelioma in the United States remains very low, with 14 cases occurring per million people per year. Despite these numbers the noticed threefold increase in mesothelioma in males between 1970 and 1984, is directly associated with environmental and occupational exposure to asbestos, mostly in areas of asbestos product plants and shipbuilding facilities including Navy Shipyards.
Although the disease is much more commonly seen in 60-year old men, mesothelioma in women and children has been described as well. Mesothelioma causes are not so well understood in these latter two groups, but there is some evidence of possible asbestos exposure for some of these cases as well.
Malignant mesotheliomas are divided into three main types. About 50% to 70% of mesotheliomas are the epithelioid type. This type has the best prognosis (outlook for survival). The other two types are the sarcomatoid type (7%-20%), and the mixed/biphasic type (20%-35%). Mesothelioma treatment options for all three types are the same.
About three-fourths of mesotheliomas start in the chest cavity. They are known as pleural mesothelioma. Another 10% to 20% begin in the abdomen. These are called peritoneal mesothelioma. Pericardial mesothelioma, starts in the cavity around the heart, and is very rare. The covering layer of the testicles is actually an outpouching of peritoneum into the scrotum. Mesotheliomas that affect this covering of the testicles are quite rare.