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What is “Asbestos Cancer?”

Asbestos was once an industrial bonanza.  It is a mineral that is flexible, heat resistant, fire resistant, made excellent insulation, and could be made into almost anything – roof shingles, floor tiles, wire insulation, home insulation, fire protection material, wallboard – it is also fibrous and so could be woven into fire protection garments for men working in hot and hazardous areas. 

How Asbestos Brings on Cancer

It has also proven to be extremely toxic to humans, or rather the tiny fibers that make up asbestos have proven to be damaging.  Asbestos that is “friable” is material that is capable of breaking up into pieces and giving off clouds of dust that take asbestos fibers airborne.  That makes them subject to inhalation by a passing human.  They can also land on clothing where they are carried home and exposed to family members who might be washing clothes.  All of these things have happened to asbestos miners and to many, many military veterans who were exposed to asbestos during their tours of active duty.

When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they remain in the lungs despite the body's attempt to expel them as a foreign substance.  They can scar the interior lung tissue, a condition that eventually develops into asbestosis – a progressive, incurable disease that greatly reduces breathing capacity.  Often asbestos fibers will work their way through the wall of the lung to the membrane that surrounds the outer lung, a thin layer of tissue called the mesothelium.

Where Asbestos Cancer Develops

The mesothelium is actually internal tissue that covers not only the outer lungs but also wraps around the heart and covers both the wall of the chest cavity and the wall of the abdominal cavity.  It is when the asbestos fibers embed themselves in the mesothelium that asbestos cancer develops – known in the medical community as mesothelioma.  Those fibers will remain in the mesothelium for years – often decades - before they cause malformed cells to develop and begin to reproduce uncontrollably.  These are the malignant cancer cells of mesothelioma.

The most common occurrence of mesothelioma develops in the membrane around the lungs – known as the pleura.  The visceral pleura is the membrane, or mesothelium that surrounds the lungs.  The parietal pleura is the same type of tissue, but is coats the chest cavity wall.  The term for cancer that develops in the pleural tissue is pleural mesothelioma, also often referred to as mesothelioma lung cancer.  It is not technically lung cancer, because it in the tissue outside the lungs – but in time, it can spread to the lungs where tumors will develop.

Pericardial mesothelioma is the rarest form of the disease, occurring in perhaps five percent of all cases.  It is mesothelioma in the membrane surrounding the heart.  Peritoneal mesothelioma is an occurrence of the disease in the mesothelium that wraps the wall of the abdominal cavity, seen in perhaps twenty percent of all mesothelioma cases.

Symptoms and Their Causes

When mesothelioma develops, it begins to breed malignant cancer cells that cause the mesothelium to thicken and to cause the onset of excess fluid in the area, a condition called pleural effusion.  With pleural mesothelioma, that fluid will put pressure on the lungs and cause shortness of breath along with a cough.  In peritoneal mesothelioma, the fluid will cause the abdomen to swell and put pressure on the intestines and other nearby organs.  Excess fluid in the pericardial area causes pressure on the heart and also results in chest pain along with some cardiovascular symptoms.

For a more extensive discussion of mesothelioma, its symptoms and their causes visit the American Cancer Society's extensive discussion here.  Mesothelioma is still very much with us, even though the manufacture of asbestos products ceased in the United States almost thirty years ago.  For veterans and active service members alike it's a topic worth understanding.

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