Malignant mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer that affects approximately 3,000 people in the United States each year.  It occurs in the mesothelium, the protective lining that covers the majority of the internal organs of the body. It may not appear for 10 – 50 years (or more) after exposure.

Mesothelioma is divided into different types based on what part of the mesothelium is affected. The most common type of mesothelioma is pleural mesothelioma, affecting the outer lining of the lungs and internal chest wall (pleura).  The second most common type is peritoneal mesothelioma occurring in the lining of the abdominal cavity.  Other, more rare types of mesothelioma affect the tissue around the heart (pericardial mesothelioma) and around the testicles (testicular mesothelioma).

Most individuals who have been diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma have been exposed to airborne asbestos either at work or in their homes by inhaling or ingesting the asbestos fibers.  In addition, individuals who are exposed to asbestos at work may carry the fibers home on their skin and clothing and expose their family members. The primary cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos, though other factors, such as smoking may increase the likeliness of mesothelioma in certain individuals.

Early detection is often difficult, as symptoms are generally vague and can be easily confused with other illnesses such as pneumonia.  In time it begins to progress eventually causing decreased lung and cardiac function and resulting in symptoms such as fluid buildup and pain in the chest or abdomen, shortness of breath, fatigue and weight loss.  In order to diagnose mesothelioma, a doctor may order imaging scans, such as a chest X-ray and a computerized tomography (CT) scan of the chest or abdomen. Further testing, including a biopsy is required in order to confirm a diagnosis.  Generally, by the time mesothelioma is diagnosed, the disease is very advanced.  If detected early enough, patients may be eligible for aggressive mesothelioma treatment options. Currently, there is no cure for mesothelioma.

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