Malignant mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that develops from the protective lining that covers many of the body's internal organs, the mesothelium. It is usually caused by exposure to asbestos which is a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals exploited commercially for their desirable physical properties.
Mesothelioma's most common site is the pleura (outer lining of the lungs and internal chest wall), but it may also occur in the peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal cavity), the pericardium (a sac that surrounds the heart), or the tunica vaginalis (a sac that surrounds the testis).
Most people who develop mesothelioma have worked on jobs where they inhaled asbestos, or they have been exposed to asbestos dust and fiber in other ways. It has also been suggested that washing the clothes of a family member who worked with asbestos can put a person at risk for developing mesothelioma. Unlike lung cancer, there is no association between mesothelioma and smoking, but smoking greatly increases the risk of other asbestos-induced cancers.
The symptoms of mesothelioma include shortness of breath due to pleural effusion (fluid between the lung and the chest wall) or chest wall pain, and general symptoms such as weight loss. The diagnosis may be suspected with chest X-ray and CT (X-ray computed tomography) scan, and is confirmed with a biopsy (tissue sample) and microscopic examination. A thoracoscopy (inserting a tube with a camera into the chest) can be used to take biopsies. It allows the introduction of substances such as talc to obliterate the pleural space (called pleurodesis), which prevents more fluid from accumulating and pressing on the lung. Despite treatment with chemotherapy, radiation therapy or sometimes surgery, the disease carries a poor prognosis. Research about screening tests for the early detection of mesothelioma is ongoing.