Asbestos causes mesothelioma when the fibers are inhaled into the lungs and they migrate and lodge into the outer lining of the lungs called the Pleura. According to the American Cancer Society, the main contributing factor is the inflammation that results when asbestos fibers reach the lining of the lung, irritating cells in either the lining or in the lung itself. Eventually, this inflammation can lead to cancer.

If you have been exposed to asbestos, your chances of getting mesothelioma increase with the amount and duration of exposure. Asbestos can cause cancer in  certain tissues throughout the body including the lungs, abdomen, heart and/or testicles in men.

Pleural mesothelioma of the lungs is caused by breathing microscopic asbestos fibers. Airborne asbestos fibers may become lodged within the pleura, or outer lining of the lungs or chest wall. Fibers occasionally travel to other parts of the body from the lungs. For example, if someone inhaled asbestos fibers but then coughs them up and swallows them, they could also develop  peritoneal mesothelioma, which is abdominal mesothelioma in the lining of the abdomen.

Mesothelioma Develops Over Time and Risk Increases With Exposure

People who develop mesothelioma typically have a latency period ranging from 20 to 50 years between their initial asbestos exposure and diagnosis of the disease. After exposure, your body attempts to remove the needle-shaped fibers from lung tissue, but when exposure is heavy and/or prolonged, your body may be unable to keep up with the removal process. People who have been exposed to smaller amounts of asbestos over long periods of time may also develop mesothelioma, although the latency period is generally longer.

Asbestos May Become Lodged Within Bodily Tissue

Lodged asbestos particles may travel into the pleural lining of your lungs where they may cause irritation, inflammation and eventually pleural mesothelioma. Swallowed particulates have been known to migrate into the abdominal cavity where they may cause peritoneal mesothelioma.

Cardiac tissue and even testicular tissue can be impacted by asbestos fibers, sometimes resulting in pericardial mesothelioma (mesothelioma of the heart) or testicular mesothelioma.  Although these forms of the disease are rare, each accounting for 1% or less of all mesothelioma cases, they are aggressive and fatal.

Up to 10% of People Exposed to Asbestos Develop Mesothelioma

Scientists are uncertain why certain people who have been exposed to asbestos develop various forms of mesothelioma while others do not. Some experts speculate that the chronic inflammation present within asbestos containing tissues eventually causes cellular changes that lead to malignant mutations and tumor growth.

Asbestos particles are known to create tissue scarring which damages cells and their DNA. This genetic damage may prove to be the ultimate mechanism by which asbestos triggers the formation of cancerous growth within the tissues of certain individuals, but why are 90 percent of those who have been exposed to the material unaffected?

Mesothelioma is Difficult to Diagnose

Only 40% of people diagnosed with mesothelioma survive another year of life. This short life expectancy is in large part the result of late diagnosis and initiation of treatment. You may experience no symptoms during the initial phases of the disease.

Localized tumor growth is present during stage I and II of the disorder, but symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain and chronic coughing may not begin until tumors have spread. If you have reached this point, you have entered stage III or IV of the disease and traditional treatment options will be far less effective.

Sources

https://seer.cancer.gov/archive/csr/1975_2006/results_merged/sect_17_mesothelioma.pdf

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