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Understanding Your Diagnosis
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Understanding Your Mesothelioma Diagnosis

You’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma and have a million questions. You’re scared, worried, confused and angry. You feel like your world is spinning out of control.

At the Mesothelioma Support Network, we want to help you get back some control. We believe that information is power. While you may not be able to control your disease process, you can take steps to change the way you react to it. This includes understanding what mesothelioma is, where it comes from and how it will change your body. We are here to answer your most pressing questions:

What is Mesothelioma?

Also called asbestos cancer, mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer and is primarily caused by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral found throughout the United States. Because of its heat- and fire-resistant properties, it’s been used in scores of industries and more than 3,000 common commercial products. There are several types of rocks that fall under the asbestos category – Chrysotile, Amosite and Crocidolite are the most common.

When asbestos comes out of the ground it looks like pieces of old wood. When broken, it doesn’t crumble like other minerals. Instead, thin fluffy fibers shed from the broken mineral. These fibers are mixed with other materials for a variety of industrial uses.

Asbestos is excavated from open mines throughout the U.S. Some of the largest asbestos mines are in California and Montana. Asbestos is also imported here from other countries.
Asbestos rocks are transferred to a processing facility that mills the product, stripping the asbestos fiber from the rock.
The fibers are graded accorded to length and ready to be transferred into a medium, including concrete, plastics and fabrics.

How Do You Get Mesothelioma?

Unbroken, asbestos rocks are harmless. But when the rocks are shattered and the cottony fibers are released, asbestos becomes deadly. Because these fibers are so light and small, they can linger in the air for long periods. When these fibers are inhaled, they settle in the lungs and cause a slow irritation that leads to cancer over a period of decades. Some professions and occupations are more susceptible to asbestos exposure and toxicity:

Military Veterans

Up to 30 percent of all mesothelioma patients are veterans. Asbestos has been widely used in every military branch, particularly the Navy. It has been used in everything from clothing to metal fixtures.

Shipyard Workers

Asbestos was widely used on commercial ships and in shipyards to stave off the risk of fire. On the ships, it was used in the boiler and engine rooms and sleeping quarters, among other places.

Construction Zones

More than 1.3 million construction workers are exposed to asbestos each year. This mineral has been used in all types of building construction materials including floor tiles, siding panels, pipes, insulation, theater curtains and duct tape.

Factory Laborers

In addition to the industries that mill and refine asbestos, a large number of factories create asbestos-containing products.

Rescue Personnel

Those involved in the rescue, recovery and cleanup efforts following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City run a high risk of developing asbestos-related lung diseases, including mesothelioma.

Types and Stages of Mesothelioma

A diagnosis of mesothelioma can be confusing because it comes with a variety of types and stages. For each type of mesothelioma – Pleural, Peritoneal and Pericardial -- there is a different type of cell involved. It’s important for those who are diagnosed with the disease, and their loved ones, to understand what it all means.

Doctors use a variety of tests and procedures, including imaging and biopsies, to determine the extent of the cancer. Once diagnosed, your doctor will rate the cancer using a staging method, which describes the spread of the disease. There are three types of staging systems used – Butchart, TNM and Brigham. It’s up to the doctor to decide which staging system is used.

Different stages and types of mesothelioma require different treatments:

Butchart Staging System

Developed in 1976, this is the oldest staging system. It is only used for pleural mesothelioma patients.

Stage 1

The Mesothelioma tumor is small and confined to the lung cavity.

Stage 2

The cancer has invaded the chest wall or the esophagus or heart. The lymph nodes may be involved.

Stage 3

Cancer has penetrated the peritoneum, which is the lining that surrounds the abdominal cavity. Distant lymph nodes may be involved.

Stage 4

Cancer has spread throughout the body and bloodstream.

TNM Staging System

This stands for Tumor, Lymph Node and Metastasis. It is a newer staging system and used in pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma staging.

Stage 1

Here, the cancer is isolated to only one side of the body. It is not in the lymph nodes.

Stage 2

The cancer has spread from one side of the lungs to the nearby lymph nodes on the same side.

Stage 3

The cancer has spread into the chest wall, ribs, heart and other organs on the same side as the primary tumor.

Stage 4

The cancer has spread throughout the chest area on both sides and extends into other organs, both close and distant from the primary tumor.

Brigham System

Developed specifically for mesothelioma patients, this staging system allows doctors to determine if surgery is an option.

Stage 1

Mesothelioma is localized, and surgery is an option.

Stage 2

Mesothelioma is still confined and localized to one side but also has spread to the lymph nodes. Surgery is an option.

Stage 3

The cancer has spread to the chest wall, heart and throughout the abdominal area. Surgery is not an option.

Stage 4

The cancer has metastasized, or spread, through the body and into the bloodstream. Surgery is not an option.

A more in depth description of each staging system can be found on the Mesothelioma Cancer Staging Systems page.

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