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Cancer from Asbestos | Asbestos and Cancer | History of Mesothelioma

The history of the acceptance of mesothelioma as a primary malignancy of the pleura is one of more than 100 years of confusion and frustration. Mesothelioma was rare enough that its appearance was only intermittently identified in the medical literature. With less than one case in a thousand being identified as pleural or peritoneal carcinomas, it is little wonder that physicians at first were reluctant to assign it the status of a primary tumor. The medical establishment of the 1800’s was convinced that pleural tumors had to be metastatic cancers from some other primary tumor, regardless of the lack of evidence for this.

Mesothelioma Facts: An Evolving Understanding of the Disease

In the late 1800’s it was noted that mesothelioma could be found in the lymph nodes and the theory developed that the cancer began in the lymphatic system and spread to the lungs or abdomen. Not until 1891 was consideration given to the opposite theory. As always, research into the nature of mesothelioma was hampered by the lack of a sufficiently large body of facts and hard evidence. Patients, thankfully, were still few and far between and reaching a consensus with so little clinical data was difficult.

The early 20th century finally brought acceptance that some pleural sarcomas could arise even without a primary cancer elsewhere in the body. From this humble beginning, the realization that the tumor developed from the mesoderm hit home and the term mesothelioma came to be accepted in 1921. Through the ‘30’s and ‘40’s further research and an increasing number of patients established the description of the tumor and began to identify the link to asbestos exposure and cancer from asbestos.

Because of the confusion over whether mesothelioma truly was a separate clinical entity, five different views about the causes of mesothelioma took hold:

  1. The endothelial lining of the lymph nodes was the cause, hence the name endothelioma.
  2. Aberrant lung tissue became malignant within the lining of the pleura.
  3. The tumor arose in the pleural capillary endothelium.
  4. Tumors of epithelial origin always arose from a primary tumor elsewhere. The primary tumors were felt to be too small to be detected in autopsy.
  5. The tumor arose from the mesothelial lining of the pleura and peritoneum.

It was Wedler in 1943 who reported a connection too high to be coincidental between asbestosis and pleural malignancy in a population of German asbestos workers. The analysis, which factually reported the connection but made no attempt to stamp the disease with a label, was widely accepted in Germany and ignored in the rest of the world. It wasn’t until the early 1950’s that additional evidence rescued the observations of Wedler and began to build an irrefutable connection between the development of cancer from asbestos exposure.

For more mesothelioma facts and information on asbestos and cancer, including updates on the latest mesothelioma research, contact the Meso Foundation today.