Exposure to asbestos is the direct cause of multiple diseases including mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer – with mesothelioma perhaps the most tragic. Mesothelioma is a rare, incurable cancer that occurs in the thin layer of tissue that covers the majority of the body’s internal organs, the mesothelium.
Asbestos is a carcinogen, which means that it is a substance that is known to cause cancer. Breathing in asbestos dust results in microscopic fibers penetrating the lungs and damaging the healthy mesothelial cells. In effect, asbestos damages DNA, the material within a cell that provides each person’s genetic blueprint, causing faults in genes that then leads to cancer.
Scientists believe that DNA damage occurs every day due to exposure to many cancer-causing agents including car exhaust, cigarette smoke and even the sun. Human cells constantly “work” to repair the damage, although, over the years damaged cells can accumulate leaving cancer cells to regenerate. This can be the reason why older people are often affected by cancer.
Malignant mesothelioma produces tumors that grow uncontrollably in the lining of the lung or abdomen. If the tumors first appear in the lining of the lung, the cancer is known as pleural mesothelioma. If a person swallows asbestos fibers, the mesothelioma may appear initially in the abdominal cavity. It is called peritoneal mesothelioma.
Often called “asbestos cancer,” mesothelioma is highly aggressive and is resistant to many cancer treatments. Most cases of mesothelioma are linked to exposure to asbestos in a workplace, though the symptoms may not appear until decades after exposure when the worker is retired or near retirement. About three out of four people with mesothelioma are older than 65 years old.
The risk of developing mesothelioma corresponds to how much asbestos a person was exposed to and how long the asbestos exposure lasted. The risk of developing mesothelioma is a lifetime risk for people exposed to asbestos.