If you see “Cause of Death: Mesothelioma” on a death certificate, you may be wondering what it is or how this happened. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer most often associated with asbestos exposure. In most cases, a company or employer can be held accountable for exposure and resulting illness.
What Is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium. The mesothelium is a thin, double layer of tissue that surrounds the body’s internal organs. The two most common forms of mesothelioma are:
- Pleural mesothelioma. This is most prevalent and occurs in the tissue surrounding the lungs. It is often mistaken for lung cancer.
- Peritoneal mesothelioma. The peritoneal form of cancer originates in the mesothelium lining the abdominal organs, called the peritoneum.
Mesothelioma is aggressive and rarely curable. It is difficult to diagnose, leaving many patients with a diagnosis in the later stages, when cancer has spread and is challenging to treat. Mesothelioma is most often terminal.
What Happens in the Final Stages of Mesothelioma?
Many patients diagnosed with mesothelioma are already in the later stages. For those with an earlier diagnosis, progressing to later stages means that the cancer is spreading.
During stage 4, the final stage of mesothelioma, tumors spread to more distant parts of the body, usually through the lymph nodes. This is called metastasis.
Metastasis in late-stage cancer causes various symptoms depending on the locations of new tumors. Some of the characteristic symptoms of cancer at the end of life include:
- Significant pain
- Extreme fatigue and weakness
- Lack of appetite
- Weight loss
- Muscle wasting
- Rattling breath
- Sleeping more
Is Mesothelioma a Natural Cause of Death?
Cancer is generally considered to be a natural cause of death because it is a disease process internal to the body. An unnatural cause of death is an accident or a homicide, for instance.
Some might consider mesothelioma unnatural because there is a preventable cause. Asbestos exposure causes most cases of mesothelioma and therefore kills thousands of people. And, companies can usually be held liable for that exposure and the person’s death.
How Did My Loved One Get Mesothelioma?
The leading risk factor for mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. If your family member died of mesothelioma, they most likely experienced repeated exposure to this harmful mineral.
The most common source of exposure is the workplace. The government restricted the use of asbestos in the 1970s, but many people experienced exposure before that. Even today, many workplaces and older buildings contain asbestos materials and cause exposure.
It takes decades for the signs of mesothelioma to manifest. Your loved one could have been exposed on the job many years ago. These are some of the jobs with the most significant risks of asbestos exposure in the past:
- Auto mechanics
- Construction workers
- Demolition workers
- Maintenance workers
- Merchant marines
- Power plant workers
- Refinery workers
- Shipyard workers
- Steel workers
- U.S. Navy service members
- Vermiculite plant workers
Less common sources of exposure include asbestos in the home and secondary exposure from living with someone who worked with asbestos.
First responders may be exposed when assisting with disasters. Workers in older buildings, including schools, can experience years of exposure.
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral. When fibers come loose, such as when asbestos insulation is damaged or cut, anyone in the vicinity inhales them. The fibers lodge in tissues in the body, triggering inflammation and cell damage that may lead to cancer.
The more often exposure occurs, the more likely someone is to develop mesothelioma. Not everyone exposed gets cancer, so there are other factors. These include genetics and potentially smoking and overall health.
How Does Someone Die from Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is an aggressive and deadly cancer. Because it takes so long to develop and diagnose, many people are in the later stages at the time of diagnosis.
This means the cancer has spread to other tissues and areas of the body. At this point, a patient has limited treatment options.
In the late stages of mesothelioma, someone may die from their organs ceasing to function properly. Other complications in late-stage cancer include malnutrition, infection, and coma.
How Many People Die from Mesothelioma?
The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that Americans are still dying from asbestos exposure despite restrictions on its use. Between 1999 and 2015, 45,221 people in the U.S. died from mesothelioma.
Most of these victims were older men because exposure occurs primarily in industrial jobs. The latency period—the time between exposure and diagnosis—can be as long as 70 years. This helps explain why people are still dying from exposure that occurred decades ago.
Does Mesothelioma Have to Be a Death Sentence?
Unfortunately, for most people, mesothelioma is a death sentence, but this is changing. Researchers are constantly developing newer, better treatments. While ultimately, mesothelioma may result in death, patients are living longer and longer with it.
Can I Hold Someone Liable for My Loved One’s Death?
Many people have successfully sued manufacturers of asbestos products over mesothelioma and other asbestos illnesses. Contact a mesothelioma and asbestos lawyer if you suspect your loved one came across asbestos in their lifetime.
These lawyers and firms have resources and experience that can help you track down the companies responsible. If the companies still exist, you can sue for damages in a wrongful death case. In general, a spouse, domestic partner, child, domestic partner, and minor stepchildren can sue for wrongful death.
If the company went bankrupt and no longer exists, they may have established a trust to compensate victims. A lawyer can help you file a claim with the right trust.
You may feel uncertain about seeking compensation for the death of a loved one, but it is important to hold negligent companies responsible. Damages in a wrongful death suit cover costs, such as:
- Lost wages and benefits
- Medical care
- Funerals and burials
- Loss of comfort and companionship
If you lost a loved one to mesothelioma, contact a lawyer for more advice. There is no obligation to hire a lawyer who offers a free consultation. They can look over your case, provide practical guidance, and give you options and information.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.