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Mesothelioma is a cancer of mesothelium.
Mesothelial cells normally line the body cavities, including the pleura, peritoneum, pericardium, and testis. In the chest and abdominal cavities, as well as in the cavity around the heart (pericardial sac), there is a layer of specialized cells called mesothelial cells. These cells also surround the outer surface of most internal organs. These cells form tissue called mesothelium.
The mesothelium performs a protective function for the internal organs by producing a lubricating fluid that permits the organs to move around. For example, this fluid makes it easier for the lungs to move inside the chest while a person breathes. The mesothelium of the abdomen is known as the peritoneum, and the mesothelium of the chest is called the pleura. The pericardium refers to the mesothelium of the pericardial cavity.
Malignancies involving mesothelial cells in these body cavities are known as malignant mesothelioma, which may be localized or diffuse. Diagnosis is difficult because the results from fluid analysis of the effusion from the tumor are not usually diagnostic. Most, but not all, pleural malignant mesothelioma is associated with asbestos exposure. Of patients with pleural malignant mesothelioma, 77% have been exposed to asbestos in the past.
Mesothelioma was recognized as a tumor of the pleura, peritoneum and pericardium in the late 1700's. However it was not until much later, in 1960, that this particular type of tumor was described in more detail and even more importantly, its association with asbestos exposure was recognized. The first report linking mesothelioma to asbestos exposure was written by J.C.Wagner, and described 32 cases of workers in the "Asbestos Hills" in South Africa. Since than the relationship between mesothelioma and asbestos exposure has been confirmed in studies around the world.
The incidence of mesothelioma in the United States remains very low, with 14 cases occurring per million people per year. Despite these numbers the noticed threefold increase in mesothelioma in males between 1970 and 1984, is directly associated with environmental and occupational exposure to asbestos, mostly in areas of asbestos product plants and shipbuilding facilities.
Although the disease is much more commonly seen in 60-year old men, it has been described in women and early childhood as well. The cause of the disease is not so well understood in these latter two groups, but there is some evidence of possible asbestos exposure for some of these cases as well.
Mesothelioma can be either malignant or benign, and can affect the membranes surrounding either the lungs or the stomach. Benign mesothelioma can be removed surgically and is generally not life threatening. Malignant mesothelioma, the most serious of the asbestos-related diseases, is much more dangerous. Linked as it is to asbestos exposure, mesothelioma primarily affects the pleura around the lungs (pleural mesothelioma) but has also been known to attack the membrane surrounding the stomach (peritoneal mesothelioma).
Malignant mesotheliomas are divided into three main types. About 50% to 70% of mesotheliomas are the epithelioid type. This type has the best prognosis (outlook for survival). The other two types are the sarcomatoid type (7%-20%), and the mixed/biphasic type (20%-35%). Treatment options for all three types are the same.
About three-fourths of mesotheliomas start in the chest cavity. They are known as pleural mesotheliomas. Another 10% to 20% begin in the abdomen. These are called peritoneal mesotheliomas. Pericardial mesotheliomas, those starting in the cavity around the heart, are very rare. The covering layer of the testicles is actually an outpouching of peritoneum into the scrotum. Mesotheliomas that affect this covering of the testicles are quite rare.
Thoracoscopy or pleuroscopy should be performed to confirm the diagnosis.
Laparoscopy is important for staging but is still investigational to evaluate for transdiaphragmatic involvement.
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