Nearly every case of mesothelioma is caused by asbestos in some way, whether through exposure in the home or at work. Doctors have discovered a few cases in patients with no known previous exposure, but these are extremely rare. This form of cancer develops in the mesothelium, a protective tissue that lines many organs in the body. Protective tissue around the lungs and chest wall are most often the site of the cancer, but it’s also been found near the heart, abdominal cavity or testicles. Once diagnosed, patients generally have a poor prognosis and it is fatal in almost all cases.
Mesothelioma is caused by asbestos when fibers from the material are inhaled and get lodged in a person’s body. Some silicates like asbestos produce small crystalline tubes that are so small, they are invisible to the human eye. While they can be seen when massed together, individual fibers can be smaller than bacteria, so they easily penetrate many of the body’s defenses. However, while the human body can usually repel bacteria without too much trouble, it isn’t capable of rejecting silicate fibers. When disturbed, these fibers break off of the material and suspend in the air. Once inhaled, they settle in the lungs and embed in tissue.
This provokes an immune response by the body, which causes inflammation and dispatches white blood cells to the area. The white blood cells attempt to digest the material and leave scar tissue behind, but the white blood cell is unable to process the fiber and dies in the process. This cycle repeats endlessly, resulting in an accumulation of scar tissue and physical changes to cells near the fiber. Eventually, these changes result in fibrosis and, finally, mesothelioma. In fact, asbestos is considered by some doctors to be a complete carcinogen, which means it can cause cancer even in people not exposed to other carcinogens. In some cases, these fibers are able to penetrate the cells to such a degree that they can become intertwined with chromosomes, resulting in complex deformities in the cell.
In recent decades, mesothelioma caused by asbestos has become a major concern. This silicate was a common building material in the late 19th century and wasn’t banned from use until 1970s. From the 70s to the 80s, it was slowly phased out from buildings, so many cases are just now being diagnosed. It can take several years, even decades, for a doctor to catch the cancer because it produces symptoms similar to many other respiratory conditions. At first, inflammation in the lungs produces pain, shortness of breath and coughing. Over time, the patient will develop severe fatigue and begin coughing up blood. In many cases, the disease is not properly diagnosed until a patient’s symptoms become particularly bad. By then, though, there is usually little that can be done to stop the cancer.
Most people who develop mesothelioma are exposed to asbestos at work. This is especially true in industries where the material is exposed to industrial equipment or is under stress in any way. Anyone diagnosed with the cancer should consider seeking assistance from an attorney experienced in this area of law. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed by victims of the disease and many companies have set up settlement funds for this purpose.