Mesothelioma – a breathless helplessness

Over 5,000 people died last year from Mesothelioma – almost four times the amount of people that were killed on UK roads.

Mesothelioma is a type of rare, aggressive cancer that develops from the thin layer of tissue that covers many of the internal organs. The most commonly affected areas are the lining of the lungs and chest.

The only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. A naturally occurring material, asbestos was once used for its fire and heat-resistant properties, and it can still be found in many different places, even if it is banned. This can include old building, schools and worksites, amongst others. Asbestos is now banned in the UK but is still present in up to 53% of UK buildings.

There are two types of Mesothelioma:

The first is by where the tumours are found in the body (Pleural Mesothelioma, Peritoneal Mesothelioma and Percardial Mesothelioma).

The second way to categorise Mesothelioma is by three types of cell structure the cancer may have (Epithelioid, Sarcomatoid or Biphasic).

As a rare form of cancer, diagnosing mesothelioma can be a long, complex and often frustrating process, and therefore the disease is often misdiagnosed. Doctors rely on the symptoms of the patient as well as various types of tests to diagnose mesothelioma.

The symptoms ssociated with mesothelioma can often look like conditions related to other diiseases, which makes it very difficult to diagnose. Some common symptoms of mesothelioma include:

Trouble breathing or chest pain

Effusion in the lungs or abdomen



Loss if weight

Upon diagnosis of mesothelioma, the doctor will categorise the disease into one of four stages. While there are several staging systems, the TNM System (Tumour, Lymph Nodes and Metastasis) is the most commonly used.

Stage 1: The mesothelioma tumour is located in only one area and has not spread to other parts of the body.

Stage 2: A large tumour may have progressed to nearby areas and/or the lymph nodes, but has not gone on any further.

Stage 3: Tumours have typically spread beyond the local area to several nearby locations and the lymph nodes.

Stage 4: The tumours have spread into multiple areas and throughout the lymphatic system, invading other organs throughout the body.

Typically, Stage 1 and Stage 2 mesothelioma can be treated effectively with surgery and other forms of therapy. However, Stage 3 and Stage 4 mesothelioma are often treated palliatively.

Once diagnosed with mesothelioma, the next step is to discuss treatment options. Although no cure for mesothelioma exists, several standard therapies are available. In some cases, these treatments can improve the patient’s prognosis, extending their lives significantly.

Other risk factors can increase the potential for developing the disease such as radiation, genetics and carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes can be described as a form of carbon, similar to graphite found in pencils. They are hollow tubes and are 10,000 times smaller than human hair, but stronger than steel. They are also good conductors of electricity and heat; similar qualities to that of asbestos.

In 2012, an estimated 5,400 people in the UK were living with mesothelioma. Males are four times more likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma than Women – this could largely be down to males typically working on building sites and in factories when asbestos was in use.

In the UK, the North East experienced the highest mesothelioma mortality rate, with over 400 people losing their life to the disease in 2008-2012. Other areas affected by mortality are notably Plymouth and Glasgow – this reflects the location of the industries, such as shipbuilding, in which asbestos was commonly used.

Unsurprisingly the UK has the highest mesothelioma mortality rate in the world. For every 1 million of the population 17.8 people die from the disease. Australia is not far behind this, as asbestos was only banned in 2003 throughout the country.

Our partner, British Lung Foundation is constantly investing in life-saving research in to lung conditions and diseases. Over the last 30 years, BLF have invested £26m in finding ways to prevent, treat and cure lung conditions.


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