This two-part informational series explores the morbid connection between asbestos and mesothelioma—a relationship that results in thousands of deaths in the U.S. each year. Tracing that relationship through the history of asbestos use, common avenues of exposure and the ultimate results of a rare but unrelentingly deadly illness—these articles are intended to facilitate a full understanding of just how a major American health crisis has come to be, as well as what the future may hold. In ‘Part One’ of the series, we look at the causal methodology, symptoms and diagnostic criteria.
Mesothelioma cancer is diagnosed at a rate of about 3000 new cases per calendar year in the United States alone. It is a worldwide health crisis that has resulted in an unprecedented landslide of civil litigation and continues to be one of the most aggressive and difficult to treat forms of cancer known to man.
The primary cause of mesothelioma cancer is exposure to asbestos—present in about 90 percent of all diagnosed cases. Just how that exposure leads to the development of cancer cells is a complex and time-intensive process that starts with direct or non-direct contact with manufactured materials that contain asbestos fibers. When such materials ages or are damaged, they release a toxic dust that is comprised of tiny, crystalline fibers. While not visible to the naked eye, these fibers are abrasive and capable of causing extensive internal damage over the course of time. Once consumed through the nose or mouth, they make their way into various organs—specifically, they become embedded in the mesothelium, which is a protective lining surrounding the lungs, heart and abdominal cavity.
Once caught inside this delicate tissue, the fibers are impossible to remove and set the stage for cancer cells to form. Over a span of 30 to 50 years or more, they cause significant abrasions and tissue damage that result in the formation of malignant tumors.
Most people who have mesothelioma cancer are unaware of its existence for many years. Early warning signs are difficult to correctly attribute, as they closely mimic symptoms of common medical conditions. For instance, in the case of pleural mesothelioma, common symptoms include coughing and shortness of breath. Both symptoms can be easily disregarded as the effects of a simple head cold or minor respiratory infection, so many people who experience them fail to seek medical evaluation of them.
Even if a medical opinion is sought, without being aware of a patient’s history of exposure to asbestos, a doctor can easily misdiagnose early mesothelioma symptoms unknowingly. In order for a definitive diagnosis to be made, mesothelioma cancer must be suspected and screened for—usually via a chest x-ray and often additional imaging techniques like a CAT scan or MRI. Before making a conclusive diagnosis, a biopsy must be performed, revealing the existence of cancer cells. This can only occur when tissue or fluid collected from the affected organ are analyzed microscopically.