What Is Mesothelioma Cancer?

SelectCare works closely with community partners throughout New York City to better assist and educate our clients and their families.  The following article was written by Tim Povtak of Asbestos.com for publication on our Website.


Malignant mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos fibers, presenting difficult and unique challenges for patients, families and doctors.

Unlike breast, lung, colon, prostate and other more common cancers, mesothelioma remains a mystery to many in the medical profession, including oncologists who rarely treat it or even see it.

It makes finding a specialist so critical.

Less than 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed annually in the United States. By comparison, there are 200,000-plus new lung cancer cases each year.

Mesothelioma also is rarely diagnosed in anyone under the age of 60, a result of its long latency period. It can be anywhere from 20-50 years between asbestos exposure and first diagnosis of this disease.

Mesothelioma cancer in your 60’s or later can stem from an unknowing inhalation of microscopic asbestos fibers that happened in your 20s. Those fibers become lodged in the thin lining around the lungs or abdomen, cause inflammation and scarring, and then slowly develop into cancer.

The early symptoms, shortness of breath, a persistent dry cough and chest pain, often mirror those of less serious illnesses, making it difficult to diagnose early.

Treating it effectively is even tougher.

“Mesothelioma is a diffuse disease that presents unique problems,” says renowned thoracic surgeon and mesothelioma specialist Dr. Robert Cameron at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. “There are good options out there today, but many doctors don’t even know about them.”

Finding a Specialty Center Is Key

The key is reaching a mesothelioma specialty center to coordinate treatment, develop a personalized plan and take a multidisciplinary approach.

It is critical to find a specialist who knows the most up-to-date methods of treating it and the intricacies of the disease. You need a specialist who sees it often. This isn’t lung cancer, although many medical professionals treat it like that.

Oncologists who don’t see it enough don’t fully understand it, allowing patients to fall into the nihilistic trap that there is little they can do.

“A lot of patients, too many, are told, “It’s a fatal disease, there’s nothing you can do,’ and they just give up,” says thoracic surgeon and mesothelioma specialist Dr. Abraham Lebenthal at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “But the fact is that there are specialized therapies out there today that work.”

The standard of care includes a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. It also could include being part of a clinical trial involving the latest immunotherapy drugs, which come with fewer side effects. There is photodynamic therapy and innovative gene therapy also that has proven effective.

Medical advancements have moved mesothelioma toward becoming a chronic disease like diabetes that can be managed for many years. It is no longer the death sentence that once came with a prognosis of 6-12 months. Survivors are living three, five or more years. Quality of life is good for many.

“Hopefully, at some point we’ll find a cure. We’re certainly moving in that direction now,” said medical oncologist and mesothelioma specialist Dr. Rama Balaraman of Florida Cancer Affiliates in Ocala. “Our patients today are living remarkably well with these new treatments. After all the years of hopelessness, it’s really uplifting now to see what’s happening.”

Tim Povtak is a content writer for The Mesothelioma Center and Asbestos.com.

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