According to the American Cancer Society, between 2,000 and 3,000 people in the United States are diagnosed each year with mesothelioma, a rare and dangerous cancer.
Mesothelioma starts in the mesothelium, which includes the:
- Pleura, the thin layer of tissue that lines the lungs
- Pericardium, the sac around the heart
- Peritoneum, the membrane that lines the abdomen
Mesothelioma usually starts in the pleura. This type of mesothelioma also is called malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM).
Asbestos Exposure is a Factor
Mesothelioma almost always is caused by past exposure to fibers of asbestos. Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that in the past was used in the construction, automotive, military, marine and manufacturing industries.
When tiny particles of asbestos are made or disturbed, they can float in the air. People can breathe in the asbestos or swallow it. This may lead to serious health conditions such as cancers of the lung, larynx and kidney. It also can cause asbestosis, a non-cancerous, chronic lung disease.
In some people, asbestos fibers cause genetic changes in the pleura, the thin layer of tissue that lines the lungs. These changes may lead to mesothelioma. It can occur 20 to 50 years after a person has come in contact with asbestos.
There are three types of mesothelioma:
- Epithelioid: 60% to 70% of cases, usually has the best outcome
- Sarcomatoid: 10% to 15% of cases, more aggressive
- Biphasic or mixed: 10% to 15% of cases, extremely aggressive
In rare cases, mesothelioma can be passed down from one generation to the next. Genetic counseling may be right for you. Visit our genetic testing page to learn more.
Mesothelioma Risk Factors
Anything that increases your chance of getting mesothelioma is a risk factor. The only known risk factor for mesothelioma is contact with asbestos. It is more common in men, mainly those between 45 and 85 years old.
Not everyone with risk factors gets mesothelioma. However, if you have been exposed to asbestos, it’s a good idea to tell your doctor.