What is Mesothelioma?

The first reaction most people have when they hear about mesothelioma is “meso what?” The word is as strange and unfamiliar as the asbestos cancer itself. In the book 100 Questions and Answers About Mesothelioma, we’re told that malignant mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that is found in the lining of the chest, lungs, and abdomen. In medical terms this is typically referred to as the lining of the pleura (lung) and peritoneum (abdomen). The book also tells us that between 2000 and 3000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed each year in the United States alone. Most of those cases are diagnosed as pleural mesothelioma (mesothelioma of the lungs).

In my experience, most patients are so overwhelmed when given the diagnosis of mesothelioma that they enter a state of bewilderment. They hear only the words; “rare, chemotherapy and sometimes untreatable.” Needless to say, the pronunciation of mesothelioma is a tongue-twister for most all of us. When one is diagnosed with mesothelioma, its strange name can complicate the understanding of the disease.

However, if you understand the medical definition of mesothelioma, it may make it easier to say. “Mesothelioma” is derived from two medical terms. Mesothelium is the double-layer of flat cells that forms a protective lining of the chest, lungs and abdomen. Oma means tumor. So, a diagnosis of mesothelioma refers to a cancer or tumor of one of the protective linings in one’s body. For simplicity’s sake, I refer to it as “meso” because by doing so, it makes it easier for the patient or family member to talk to me.

When a loved one has been diagnosed with “meso,” the research of the disease normally becomes the responsibility of the spouse or other family member. You may find that even your primary care physician knows little about the disease. Years ago, few doctors even recognized mesothelioma as a specific type of cancer, often using the generic term of lung cancer when providing a diagnosis. In fact, the cancer mesothelioma was not even recognized until 1960, when Dr. J. C. Wagner made the link between exposure to asbestos and cancer of the mesothelium.

Today, because of a determined and dedicated group of people, many who have lost loved ones to meso, there is a concentrated effort to educate the public, government and medical community. There are many web sites that explain in medical terms the definition of mesothelioma. But medical jargon is hard to absorb when one is forced to learn about the consequences of mesothelioma.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to speak with the grandson of a man who had been diagnosed with a mesothelioma. The grandson called to ask me if he explained the disease correctly to his grandfather. This is what he told me.

“Pretend your chest is an egg! Visualize the albumen (egg white) as being the thin linings of the chest wall and lungs and the vitellus (egg yolk) as your lung taking in air and breathing. What happens when you boil an egg? Picture the boiling water as the cancer cells that are attacking the egg white making the tumor. As the egg white turns into the tumor, it makes it hard for the yolk (your lung) to function. The tumor gets bigger until your lung stops working.”

Unfortunately, that is exactly what mesothelioma does. Abnormal and diseased cells of the mesothelium (the lining of the chest, lung and abdomen) rapidly divide and form a large solid tumor that invades or suffocates vital organs such as the lung and heart.

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