Common Questions Concerning Asbestos
Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos and symptoms may not appear for as long as 20 to 40 years after exposure. Mesothelioma is a cancerous tumor of the mesothelium. The mesothelium is the tissue made up of specialized cells called mesothelial cells which line the chest cavity, abdominal cavity, and the cavity around the heart. These cells also cover the outer surface of most internal organs. Mesothelioma is a cancer that attacks any of these mesothelial regions.
The attorneys at the Robichaux Law Firm, LLC in New Orleans, LA are available to answer questions about mesothelioma and how our law firm represents people suffering from this disease.
Tumors of the mesothelium can either be benign or malignant. A benign tumor is non-cancerous. A malignant tumor is cancerous, and one occurring on the mesothelium is called malignant mesothelioma. Because most mesothelial tumors are cancerous, malignant mesothelioma is commonly referred to as simply mesothelioma, or in casual conversation meso.
Asbestos exposure is the primary cause of mesothelioma. After asbestos fibers are breathed in, they travel to the ends of small air passages and reach the pleura where they cause physical damage to mesothelial cells that may result in cancer. They also cause injury to lung cells that can result in lung cancer and/or asbestosis (replacement of lung tissue by scar tissue). If ingested, these fibers can travel to the abdominal cavity and cause peritoneal mesothelioma.
While exposure to asbestos is mostly occupational, it can also be environmental. Exposure to asbestos can also occur from being in close contact with an asbestos worker. For example, the work clothes of an asbestos worker can expose a family member to asbestos fibers while doing laundry.
The main risk factor for developing mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. The term asbestos refers to a family of magnesium-silicate mineral fibers. In the past, asbestos was used widely for insulation because it does not conduct heat well and is resistant to burning. As the link between asbestos and mesothelioma has become more well known, the use of this material has decreased. However, up to 8 million Americans may already have been exposed to asbestos. Although asbestos has not been used in construction since approximately 1975, the products already in place present a danger to individuals involved in repair work and the demolition of structures containing asbestos products.
It is possible that asbestos causes cancer by physically irritating cells rather than by a chemical effect. When asbestos fibers are inhaled, the long, thin fibers may reach the ends of the small airways and penetrate into the pleural lining of the lung and chest wall. These fibers may then directly injure mesothelial cells of the pleura, and eventually cause mesothelioma.
People exposed to asbestos at an early age, for a long period of time, are most likely to develop this cancer. Mesothelioma, however, takes a very long time to develop. The time between exposure and diagnosis of mesothelioma is usually between 20 and 40 years.
It is important to note that symptoms of mesothelioma may not appear until 30 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos. The early symptoms of malignant mesothelioma are common symptoms that are not specific to the disease itself. People often mistake the symptoms for everyday sicknesses and ailments such as the common cold. Many people with mesothelioma have symptoms for only a few months before they are diagnosed.
Over half of the patients with pleural mesothelioma have pain at the side of the chest or in the lower back. Shortness of breath is almost always a symptom shared by patients. Some report coughing, fever, sweating, fatigue, difficulty swallowing, and weight loss. Extreme symptoms include coughing up blood, swelling of the face and arms, muscle weakness, and sensory loss.
Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include abdominal pain, weight loss, nausea, and vomiting. Some patients also suffer from hernias, fluid in the abdominal cavity, or the presence of a mass or bulge in the abdomen.
Anyone experiencing any of these symptoms who believes he or she has been exposed to asbestos should see a doctor immediately for diagnosis.
One reason why mesothelioma is such a dangerous form of cancer is because it is difficult to diagnose. Mesothelioma usually progresses to a dangerous stage by the time it is finally diagnosed. For these reasons it is incredibly important to see a doctor as soon as you experience any of the aforementioned symptoms.
It is essential that you give your doctor a complete medical history. Be sure to inform your doctor if you have been exposed to asbestos at work or through a family member. It is important to also tell your doctor when and for how long your exposure to asbestos occurred. Your medical history will help your doctor assess the risk factors associated with mesothelioma, as well as your symptoms.
The most basic test is a chest x-ray. The x-ray will show abnormalities involving the lungs, such as irregular thickening of the pleura, lowering of the space between the lungs, abnormal mineral deposits, and fluid build up inside of the lungs. A doctor will either take a CT scan (computed tomography scan) or an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging scan) to try and determine the location, size and mass of a possible cancerous growth. The CT scan uses a rotating x-ray beam to create a series of pictures of the body from many different angles. A computer then combines these pictures to produce cross-sectional images of a part of the body. A doctor may need to inject a dye into a vein in order to highlight details on the CT scan. An MRI uses magnetic fields instead of x-rays to create its images. After the magnetic fields capture the information, a computer generates a detailed cross-sectional image.
If pleural mesothelioma is suspected, the doctor may look inside the chest cavity with a special instrument called a thoracoscope. A peritoneoscope can be used in a similar procedure to look at the abdomen. In this procedure the doctor is looking for abnormal cell growths, which will usually be referred to as tumors. The thoracoscope (telescope-like instrument connected to a video camera) is inserted through a small incision in the chest. The doctor can see the tumor through the thoracoscope, and can use special forceps to take a tissue biopsy.
After looking at the piece of the tumor under a microscope, the doctor may decide whether the tumor is benign, which means that it is not cancerous, or malignant, which means that it is cancerous.
If the doctor can’t tell from the biopsy if the growth is cancerous, there are several other options. The doctor may take a sample of any fluid that has built up around the lungs, stomach or heart, or he may take a blood sample to see if your blood cell levels are what they are supposed to be.
In patients with a pleural effusion, a sample of this fluid can be removed by inserting a needle into the chest cavity. The fluid is then tested and its chemical make-up is then viewed under a microscope to determine whether cancer cells are present. A similar technique can also be used to obtain abdominal fluid and pericardial fluid.
It is often difficult to simply diagnose mesothelioma by looking at the cells from the fluid around the lungs, abdomen or heart. It is even hard to accurately diagnose mesothelioma solely with tissue from biopsies. Mesothelioma can look like several other types of cancer under a microscope. Special laboratory tests are often done to help distinguish mesothelioma from some other types of cancer. These tests often use special techniques to recognize certain markers (various types of chemicals) known to be present in mesotheliomas.
The people most at risk for developing asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis are workers of all sorts of skills and trades who worked in a wide variety of job sites during and prior to the mid-1970s. From the 1940s to the 1970s, many workers around the world were exposed to asbestos fibers and dust at their jobs.
People at High Risk of Mesothelioma:
- Brake Mechanics
- Insulators (Asbestos Workers)
- Maintenance Workers
- Pipe Fitters
- Secondary Exposure
- Ship Fitters
- Steel Workers
Other Professionals that May be at Risk:
- Auto Mechanics
- Demolition Workers
- Drywall Installers
- Factor Workers
- HVAC Workers
- Naval Officers
- Power Plant Employees
- Railroad Workers
- Stone Masons
About 75% of mesothelioma occurrences start in the chest cavity. This is known as pleural mesothelioma. Another 10% to 20% is peritoneal mesothelioma which begins in the abdomen. Pericardial mesothelioma, found in the cavity around the heart, is very rare.
Some forms of Mesothelioma
Rare Forms of Mesothelioma( Cardiac cancer, Mesotheliomas of the ovaries and the scrotum)
Benign Forms of Mesothelioma (Cystic mesothelioma of the peritoneum)
Once a person has been diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, more tests will have to be done in order to determine whether or not the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. This process is called staging. The stage of the cancer must be determined in order to plan treatment. The following stages are used to describe malignant mesothelioma:
Localized Malignant Mesothelioma
Stage I: The cancer is present in the lining of the chest cavity near the lungs and heart or in the diaphragm of the lung.
Advanced Malignant Mesothelioma
Stage II: The cancer has spread beyond the lining of the chest to the lymph nodes of the chest. Lymph nodes are collections of immune system cells that help the body fight off infections.
Stage III: The cancer has spread through the diaphragm or abdominal lining and into the chest wall, center of the chest, the heart, or nearby lymph nodes.
Stage IV: The cancer has spread to distant organs or tissues.
The three kinds of treatment which are most commonly used are surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. There are also new types of treatment that are being explored for use in the treatment of mesothelioma.
Surgery is commonly used in the treatment of mesothelioma. It may involve the removal of part of the chest or abdominal lining, part of the lungs, or part of the diaphragm. Pleurodesis, pleurectomy, pneumonectomy, and extra pleural pneumonectomy are all various types of surgical treatments of mesothelioma.
Radiation therapy is the use of high energy x-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It may be administered either in pill form or intravenously.
Intraoperative photodynamic therapy is a new type of treatment that uses special drugs and light to kill cancer cells during surgery. A drug that makes cancerous cells sensitive to light is administered to the cells and then a light is shined onto the pleura during surgery in order to kill the cells. This type of treatment is being researched for use in early stages of mesothelioma of the chest.
Immunotherapy and Gene therapy are both new types of treatment that are being evaluated in clinical trials. Immunotherapy uses the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer within the body. Gene therapy is designed to treat mesothelioma by correcting the genes that allow a cancerous tumor to grow.
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