|December 3, 2016|
Mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium, the layer of tissue that surrounds many of the organs in the body. This is a rare type of cancer, but its most common form is pleural, in which it attacks the lining of the chest cavity and lungs. Most often caused by asbestos exposure, this type of cancer is aggressive and deadly, although advances in treatments are giving patients hope.
Exactly what causes mesothelioma is not known, but there are risk factors. The most important of these is asbestos exposure. This is a natural mineral that for many years was used in nearly every construction and shipbuilding application imaginable. People who spent their careers working around asbestos likely inhaled small fibers of the mineral, which then became lodged in lung or pleural tissue, causing the damage that develops into mesothelioma in some people.
The cancer that attacks the mesothelium most often develops in the pleura, but this is not always the case. For this rare type of cancer, even rarer are cases in which the cancer begins in the peritoneum, the lining of the abdominal cavity. And even rarer than that is pericardial mesothelioma, the cancer of the lining around the heart.
The latency period for mesothelioma is defined as the time between the first exposure to asbestos and the diagnosis. For mesothelioma, this period is long. Studies have found that the latency period may be anywhere from 14 to 72 years, with the average being closer to 50 years. There are some important reasons for this long period of time, including the fact that this type of cancer is difficult to diagnose. The symptoms of pleural mesothelioma mimic those of more common conditions and it is difficult to distinguish between lung cancer and mesothelioma, even at the cellular level.
With such long latency periods, many people diagnosed with mesothelioma don't get the diagnosis until the condition is advanced and difficult to treat. As a result, many people get a poor prognosis. When diagnosed during stage I, which is rare, the median survival time is less than two years. At stage IV, the most advanced state in which the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, the median survival time is just 12 months.
Researchers have been working on exciting new treatment options for mesothelioma and other cancers that are difficult to treat. One area of study is the use of nanoparticles to deliver medication or gene therapy directly to cancer cells. Results have been promising in this line of study, but more work needs to be done before nanoparticles can be used to treat and maybe even save patients with mesothelioma.
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