Exposure to asbestos can cause a number of serious illnesses such as lung cancer and asbestosis but perhaps no disease has come to be as associated with the hazardous substance as malignant mesothelioma.
According to the National Cancer Institute, a patient is diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma when malignant cancer cells are found in the thin lining of the chest, abdomen and many of the body's internal organs.
These cancerous cells can be found in the pleura or the peritoneum. The pleura is the thin membrane that covers the lungs and lines the chest cavity while the peritoneum is the lining of the abdomen and many of the body's other organs.
Asbestos exposure causes both types of malignant mesothelioma.
Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring minerals that have been used by humans for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks and Romans prized asbestos for its resistance to fire, dubbing it the "miracle mineral." The use of asbestos continued throughout the centuries and further accelerated during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, according to Stanford University's Department of Environmental Health and Safety.
The deadly mineral continued to be used throughout the 20th century in a variety of industries, particularly construction and shipbuilding. Both of these industries valued asbestos's flame retardant properties as well as its utility as an insulator.
However, by the mid-1960s, it was known that exposure to asbestos could cause malignant mesothelioma; something many pipe-fitters, electricians, shipyard workers, mechanics and demolition and construction workers, along with many other employees in various industries, found out the hard way.
One of the aspects of malignant mesothelioma that makes it such a difficult disease to treat is that symptoms may not manifest themselves for several decades. This means that many people who worked with asbestos in the 1940s and 1950s are only recently being diagnosed with any illnesses they may have contracted half a century ago.
According to the National Cancer Institute, one should consult a doctor if they have trouble breathing, find lumps in the abdominal area, experience pain under the rib cage, pain and/or swelling in the abdomen or lose weight for unknown reasons, as these are some of the symptoms of malignant mesothelioma.
There are a number of different methods that doctors will use to diagnose malignant mesothelioma, according to the Mayo Clinic.
One category of tests for malignant mesothelioma are biopsies. These procedures include fine-needle aspiration, thoracoscopy, laparoscopy, thoracotomy and laparotomy. All of these procedures may involve the removal of a tissue sample for testing through a variety of methods, ranging from a small needle insertion to the opening of one's chest cavity.
After the sample is removed, it is analyzed under microscopes for signs of malignant mesothelioma.
Once a malignant mesothelioma diagnosis has been confirmed, staging tests, such as X-rays and MRIs, are undertaken to see the extent of the disease.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are four stages of pleural malignant mesothelioma.
Stage I pleural mesothelioma is when the cancer is confined to one part of the chest lining.
In stage II mesothelioma, the disease may have spread to the lungs or diaphragm.
Stage III mesothelioma is when the cancer may have spread to other areas of the chest.
And finally, stage IV mesothelioma is when the disease may have spread to farther areas of the body such as the brain.
There is a range of treatments for malignant mesothelioma which include surgery to decrease fluid or remove affected tissue. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can also be used.
Asbestos-related diseases such as malignant mesothelioma are typically very deadly, as the World Health Organization estimates that such illnesses claim the lives of 107,000 people each year.