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Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that is diagnosed in approximately 2,000 to 3,000 patients each year in the United States. The primary risk associated with the development of mesothelioma is prolonged or heavy exposure to asbestos, a fibrous, heat and fire resistant mineral, that has been widely used in building materials and automotive parts for many years.
People who are at the highest risk of being exposed to asbestos, and potentially developing mesothelioma, are individuals who have worked in industries that use or manufacture asbestos products, or who have mined asbestos. Such occupations may include construction workers, iron workers, electricians, plumbers, boilermakers, U.S. Navy veterans, shipyard workers, metal lathers, machinists, and automotive mechanics. Individuals who live with people in such occupations may also be at risk for exposure because of asbestos dust brought home on clothes and shoes. Mesothelioma has a high latency period, meaning that it may not be discovered until 20 or 40 years after exposure to asbestos. This means that people who may have worked around asbestos up to 40 years ago may just be diagnosed with mesothelioma today.
Mesothelioma affects the mesothelium, which is a grouping of a single layer of pavement-like cells. These cells compose a protective layer and sac that surrounds most organs in the body, including the heart, lungs, and abdominal organs. The purpose of this protective layer, which is slippery, is to allow organs to slide easily against each other when they move, such as when the lungs expand and contract or the heart beats.
The mesothelium is comprised of three main regions: the pleura, which is around the lungs and in the chest cavity; the pericardium, which is around the heart; and the peritoneum, which is in the abdominal cavity. A mesothelial layer is also around the testes, which is called tunica vaginalis.
When the mesothelium is injured, it activates events that cause mesothelial cells to move from the edge of the wound to the center, releasing them into the surrounding fluid in the lung and chest area, where they may then attach and assimilate into the healing process. If the healing process is impaired for some reason, adhesions can form between the organs and the body wall which may hinder the movement of organs. In addition, if a malignant change occurs, the cells will begin to form malignant mesothelioma, which is a cancerous tumor.
The most common form of mesothelioma is pleural mesothelioma; this occurs in approximately 75 percent of mesothelioma cases. The prognosis for people diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma is the most positive when it is diagnosed early. Unfortunately, the symptoms of pleural mesothelioma may initially present as symptoms of other, more common illnesses, such as the cold or flu, which can result in people putting off a trip to the doctor, or an initial mis-diagnosis. Early symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include, but are not limited to:
shortness of breath
pain in lower back or side of the chest
swelling of the face and arms
As the cancer progresses, symptoms may also include lumps under the skin, as well as expiring blood when coughing. If pleural mesothelioma goes undetected or untreated, it can progress rapidly and spread to other regions of the body.
Treatment options for mesothelioma may increase the chances for a longer survival, but typically they do not cure the cancer. In the early stages of mesothelioma a pneumonectomy (the removal of part of a lung or a whole lung) may improve survival rates. A pleurectomy, which is the removal of membrane lining the thorax, may provide mesothelioma patients with some physical relief from the pain. Following surgery, patients may undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatment, which may also relieve patients of some pain, but typically does not cure the disease. Some patients may also choose to participate in clinical trials for new treatments, or use alternative or complimentary therapies to relieve pain, such as acupuncture.
Being diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma is very difficult. Patients will typically have a challenging road ahead of them, and the prospect of survival with the disease is relatively limited. People endure pain and suffering, as well as incur many medical expenses. They may also face a loss of income if they must stop working upon their diagnosis.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos, it is recommended that you speak with an attorney. An attorney in your state whose primary focus is asbestos exposure and mesothelioma will guide you through the legal process and determine what legal options you may have. He or she will help you seek compensation for medical expenses, lost wages, and the pain and suffering you have endured.
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