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What is Mesothelioma?

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Mesothelioma Definitions

July 1, 2008

What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma, also called 'malignant mesothelioma' is pronounced 'mee-zoh-thee-lee-oh-mah'. It is sometimes called 'meso' for short, by people who have, or work with, the disease. But people generally use the full name.

Mesothelioma is one of the more difficult diseases that people, their doctors, friends and families have to face. It is a form of cancer, almost always caused by exposure to asbestos many years ago.

Mesothelioma is complicated. So is diagnosing and treating it. There are a lot of technical terms that you might hear from your doctor or nurse.

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer. It happens in the 'mesothelium' - a thin lining in your chest and your abdomen.

Your chest lining has two layers. The inner layer lines your lung, and the outer layer lines your chest wall. The space between the two layers contains a small amount of fluid. This lubricates the two surfaces and lets the lung and chest wall move and expand as you breathe. When a tumour grows within the chest lining, it causes it to thicken at first. Then it spreads within the space between the layers. The tumour often produces fluid, sometimes several litres.

Your abdominal cavity (the bit below your diaphragm) and bowel are also covered by a lining. Like your chest lining, it has two layers. The inner layer covers the organs in your abdomen (your stomach, etc), and the outer layer lines the wall of your abdomen. A tumour can start within this lining. It causes the lining around the organs in your abdomen to thicken. Lots of fluid can also be produced, which causes swelling of the abdomen.

The connection between mesothelioma and asbestos was discovered in 1960. By 1960, the production and use of all forms of asbestos had increased world-wide. It continued to grow for at least 15 more years. This has been reflected by widespread cases of mesothelioma, 30 to 40 years later.

It wasn't until the mid 1970's that the dangers of asbestos became generally recognised and action was taken: the use of asbestos within industry began to be phased out, and Health and Safety regulations were updated.

Asbestos is the cause of over 90 per cent of cases of mesothelioma. The other causes of the disease are not fully understood. Smoking does not cause mesothelioma. Neither does exposure to modern fire-resistant materials (like fibreglass).

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