One of the first things patients ask when they’re told their mesothelioma was caused by asbestos is, what is mesothelioma asbestos cancer?
It’s shocking to think that something like asbestos exposure can lead to cancer, but it’s true. And if you’re facing this kind of diagnosis then it’s important to become fully educated about this disease.
What is Mesothelioma Asbestos Cancer?
Mesothelioma cancer is a cancer of the membrane lining around one of several organs in the body. The areas commonly affected by mesothelioma cancer are the lungs or the abdomen.
However, in rare cases, this form of cancer can also affect the heart or the testes.
The types of mesothelioma cancer include:
- Pleural: The lining of the lungs
- Peritoneal: The lining of the abdomen
- Pericardial: The lining of the heart
- Testicular: The lining of the testes
The survivability rates for mesothelioma is different depending on which area of the body is affected.
But what every type of mesothelioma cancer has in common is that they all result from a past exposure to asbestos.
How Asbestos Can Cause Cancer
Mesothelioma is one of those rare cancers where the medical community knows exactly what environmental factor causes it. Scientists even know how asbestos exposure leads to this cancer.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral made up of very thin, fibrous crystals. These crystals have microscopic particles called “fibrils” that get released during the manufacturing process.
At the end of the 19th centuries, manufacturers discovered that the properties of these fibers made them perfect for use in a whole range of products.
These properties included tensile strength, sound absorption, and the fact that they are resistant to fire, heat, and electricity.
For this reason, companies started using asbestos to manufacturing products like wall insulation, ceiling tiles, pipe insulation, and much more.
Asbestos insulation still fills the walls of schools, public buildings, and homes. It was also used in auto parts, cement, and even textiles.
The History of Asbestos
Just before the 1930s, scientists started recognizing that breathing asbestos into the lungs can eventually cause scarring of lung tissue.
Finally in 1949, Dr. W.C. Heuper, the chief of the environmental cancer unit at the National Cancer Institute referenced hundreds of scientific reports from the previous two decades to warn the American public that asbestos could cause cancer.
Many companies and governments started implementing safety measures to reduce worker and civilian exposure to asbestos, but it might have been too little too late. Some companies, even with the knowledge that asbestos could cause cancer, did nothing.
Unfortunately, even today, asbestos remains in old buildings and old products.
Asbestos In the Body
According to the American Cancer Society, today scientists have accumulated enough research to conclude that, “asbestos can increase the risk for some types of cancer.”
The process that asbestos infiltrates the body is as follows:
- Asbestos fibers get breathed into the mouth and are either inhaled or swallowed.
- If inhaled, the fibers travel through the lungs and then into the lining of the lungs.
- Fibers that are swallowed travel to the stomach and then penetrate into the stomach lining.
- In both areas, over years, these miniscule fibers continue to irritate the organ lining.
- The chronic irritation of the lung or stomach lining eventually leads to mesothelioma cancer.
Scientists have found a direct correlation between nearly all mesothelioma cases and people who’ve been exposed to asbestos at work, or people who lived with family members who were exposed.
The longer the exposure took place, the higher the likelihood that the person exposed will have mesothelioma cancer.
Other Types of Asbestos Cancer
Unfortunately, asbestos has also been linked to other types of cancer as well.
Since asbestos takes many years – as much as 30 years or more – to trigger the formation of malignant tumors, people exposed in the 1940s only started experiencing symptoms in the 1970’s and later.
On the upside (if there could be any), those several decades provided scientists with volumes of evidence to finally connect different forms of cancer with asbestos exposure.
Today, scientists know that asbestos exposure can also lead to cancer of the:
- Larynx (voice box)
- Pharynx (throat)
Scientists have yet to show a link between asbestos and these cancers that’s as direct and supported by evidence as the link between asbestos and mesothelioma.
However the American Cancer Society states that there is mounting evidence from studies conducted by numerous agencies.
- International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC): Animal studes correlate asbestos with lung, larnyx, and ovarian cancer.
- National Toxicology Program (NTP): Stated that asbestos is a known carcinogen.
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Identifies asbestos as a carcinogen.
The Biological Cause of Mesothelioma
In 2010, the University of Hawaii published a paper describing in detail how asbestos fibers are able to trigger the development of cancer in the human body.
According to the report, scientists wrote that asbestos actually kills normal cells through what’s known as “prorammed cell necrosis”. This triggers the following chain reaction.
- Cell necrosis releases a group of proteins known as HBGB1
- This triggers the body’s inflammation response
- Chronic inflammation triggers mutagen release and leads to tumor growth
In their paper, the scientists propose that the medical community could potentially test HMGB1 serum to identify mesothelioma risk early. This early detection could allow doctors to treat patients for mesothelioma much earlier in the process of the disease.
Early detection of asbestos exposure and mesothelioma is known to result in a much better prognosis for patients.
How to Avoid Asbestos
Of course the best way to avoid mesothelioma asbestos cancer is to avoid asbestos in the first place.
The best way to reduce asbestos exposure at work is to make sure your company follows OSHA’s guidelines for detecting and limiting worker exposure to asbestos.
Thankfully, manufacturing and construction industries no longer use asbestos, so worker exposure has dropped dramatically. However there are still situations when you could get exposed. Avoiding these will protect you from exposure.
- Removal of asbestos during renovations or repairs
- Living or working in an old building with asbestos products
- Custodians should be careful when cleaning old ceiling or floor tiles
- Apartment dwellers in old buildings should avoid broken tiles or exposed insulation
It may feel silly to report a broken tile to company management, but if it’s found that the tile contains asbestos, your report could save many people from being exposed to asbestos dust and facing a mesothelioma diagnosis many years later.
Have You Been Exposed?
If you recall an incident or a period of time in your past when you could have been exposed to asbestos, you shouldn’t panic.
However it’s a good idea to take some steps to stay proactive and get on top of mesothelioma before it takes over.
- Let your doctor know during your next check-up that you might have been exposed to asbestos.
- Allow you doctor to decide whether to check your pulmonary function which can reveal early issues.
- Watch for early symptoms like shortness of breath, or chronic chest pain and chronic cough
- Since mesothelioma asbestos cancer has a long latency period, you should stay aware of symptoms, especially as you approach that latency age.
Suspecting asbestos exposure is not enough reason to live in fear. Remember that most people who face serious illness later in life were workers who experiences serious, prolonged exposure.
It’s more important to be aware of any exposure risks today, and to keep yourself safe from asbestos exposure going forward.