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Overview of the Disease

By Harvey I. Pass, M.D.

Malignant pleural mesothelioma is a rare cancer affecting only 3,000 individuals in the United States per year, often shipyard workers, plumbers, and iron workers.

Mesothelioma is related to exposure to asbestos, a fiber that has been used for insulation, brake linings, and electrical services. The time from the asbestos exposure to the mesothelioma diagnosis can be as long as 15-30 years. Although the combination of smoking and asbestos exposure increases the risk of lung cancer dramatically, smoking has no effect on the development of mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma affects the lining of the inside of the chest wall (pleura) and may also involve the lining of the lungs. Usually one cell thick, mesothelioma causes the linings to thicken, which in turn keeps the lungs and chest from expanding normally.

Until recently, treatment options were limited. However, exciting new developments with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and new molecular therapies for the disease are becoming available.

Patients diagnosed with this rare cancer should seek opinions from cancer centers with mesothelioma programs and experts, including the NYU Thoracic Oncology Program.