Many people are not familiar with the cancer mesothelioma, most likely because it is such a rare malignancy (approximately 3000 cases diagnosed each year in the United States and Canada). While it may be rare, it is a devastating disease, made particularly more difficult to bear because generally it is entirely preventable. Preventable? I use that term only because mesothelioma is known only to be caused by asbestos exposure, which affected hundreds of thousands of industrial workers while simply doing their job.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that has durable but microscopic fibers which were used in thousands of industrial and consumer products because it was adept at insulating and enhancing fire retardant qualities. Unfortunately, for as useful as asbestos was, it was equally as hazardous. When asbestos fibers are inhaled, as they often were by those who worked these materials, the lodge in the lining of the lungs and abdomen, a thin membrane known as the mesothelium. Asbestos fibers cannot be expelled from the body because they are so durable and resistant to chemical breakdown.
Over time, asbestos fibers cause a harmful inflammation of the mesothelial tissue, which creates malignant plaques on the surface of the mesothelium. These plaques are the beginning stages of mesothelioma, which is highly aggressive and has no known cure. Patients of mesothelioma will often ultimately suffocate as the cancer will envelop their lungs and prevent them from sustained breathing function. It is a slow painful death, one that could have been prevented had greedy corporations and their insurance companies exposed the hazards of asbestos rather than keeping this damaging information from their employees.
Fortunately, the world is beginning to wake up to the devastating nature of the disease and more funding and research is being dedicated to mesothelioma treatment. Progressive therapies, like those which Dr. David Sugarbaker is conducting at the Brigham and Womens Hospital in Boston, MA, have extended survival rates far beyond previously attainable levels. Hopefully as awareness is spread of this difficult disease, even more funding will be devoted to focused mesothelioma research.