The existence of mesothelioma has been around for centuries, and because asbestos is a known cause, it may have been around for as long as asbestos has been mined and used. This means that the cancer may have existed since ancient times. There are records of workers suffering from symptoms related to mesothelioma from ancient Egypt!
The term meosthelioma comes from combining two medical words: mesotheli, which refers to the mesothelium (a lining of body cavities that covers internal organs) and oma, which is a suffix for tumor. Therefore, the word mesothelioma means a tumor of the mesothelium.
The history of mesothelioma research
It was only until a 1960 South African study, however, that mesothelioma was finally categorized as a specific type of cancer, with asbestos (crocidolite) as a definitive cause1. In the study, patients were believed to have tuberculous pleuritis, but upon further investigation, were found to have mesothelioma. Before this time, if mesothelioma was diagnosed the disease was believed to be so rare that there was no serious research conducted. Oftentimes, patients were misdiagnosed as well. Malignant tumors found on the mesothelium were mistakenly diagnosed as having originated elsewhere.
In 1964, another study involving insulation workers was conducted that presented further evidence confirming asbestos as a cause. Both focused on pleural mesothelioma.
In the 1960s, review panels were established in Europe and North America to review suspected cases. This allowed for more research to be conducted in several countries around the world, with the assistance of new and improved technologies to help the diagnostic process. Most notable of these was electron microscopy (1970s) and immunohistochemistry (1980s). However, most of research has been done on the pleural and peritoneal types of the disease.
What we know today
Today, doctors know for a fact that mesothelioma is a disease of its own and asbestos is definitely a cause—but there is still so much more research needed to help diagnose patients accurately and provide an effective treatment plan that isn’t just for palliative purposes, but also improves life expectancy and survival rates.