What Is Mesothelioma?
Malignant mesothelioma is an uncommon, but no longer rare, cancer that is difficult to diagnose and poorly responsive to therapy. Malignant mesothelioma is the most serious of all asbestos-related diseases.
A layer of specialized cells called mesothelial cells lines the chest cavity, abdominal cavity, and the cavity around the heart. These cells also cover the outer surface of most internal organs. The tissue formed by these cells is called mesothelium.
The mesothelium helps protect the organs by producing a special lubricating fluid that allows organs to move around. For example, this fluid makes it easier for the lungs to move inside the chest during breathing. The mesothelium of the chest is called the pleura and the mesothelium of the abdomen is known as the peritoneum. The mesothelium of the pericardial cavity (the "sac-like" space around the heart) is called the pericardium.
Tumors of the mesothelium can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). A malignant tumor of the mesothelium is called a malignant mesothelioma. Because most mesothelial tumors are cancerous, malignant mesothelioma is often simply called mesothelioma.
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 than 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.
Although the disease is much more commonly seen in 60-year old men, it has been described in women and early childhood as well. The cause of the disease is 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%). Treatment options for all three types are the same.
About three-fourths of mesotheliomas start in the chest cavity. They are known as pleural mesotheliomas. Another 10% to 20% begin in the abdomen. These are called peritoneal mesotheliomas. Pericardial mesotheliomas, those starting in the cavity around the heart, are 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.