Asbestos-related enquiries are often accompanied by a high degree of concern over the likelihood of exposure leading, inevitably, to contracting mesothelioma cancer, the fatal, incurable form of asbestosis disease. Today’s increased asbestos awareness has led to a greater understanding of the health risks of exposure to asbestos-containing materials still present in thousands of properties around the UK, including schools, nurseries, housing estates, retail stores and factory units.

However, only 1 per cent of those who were exposed in former asbestos-using industries or currently work in occupations where contact with asbestos is still a possible daily hazard, will eventually develop malignant mesothelioma. While it is likely that an individual who breathed in asbestos fibre dust almost every day over a concentrated period of time will be more prone to cancerous cells forming, medical research continues to explore how early life exposures, a history of smoking and genetic influences determine individual outcomes.

Benign and malignant form

It is also important to be aware that mesothelioma can appear in both a benign and malignant form. The emergence of asbestosis symptoms and a subsequent, confirmed diagnosis of mesothelioma may not always mean a dramatic shortening of life expectancy. Most mesothelioma reporting invariably refers to a late stage development of malignant cancer spread diagnosed in men and women in their senior years, or even in late middle age. Where a single, non-cancerous benign form of tumour has formed, remains localised and not spread to adjacent tissues, there is a greater ability to control and successfully treat.

A benign form of mesothelioma is still a rare occurrence, accounting for less than 10 per cent of all incidence of global mesothelioma and is nearly impossible to differentiate between the malignant form unless extensive testing or surgical procedures are carried out. More challenging still is the lack of apparent symptoms at the outset and once again, may only be discovered during routine medical checks.

Symptoms of benign mesothelioma

Typical symptoms of a benign mesothelioma of the pleura ( lung linings) are chest pain, shortness of breath and a chronic cough due to the growth of the tumour, which may be pressing on the lungs. However, other signs to watch out for are weight-loss, difficulty in swallowing, fever, and coughing up blood.

A possible distinguishing symptom is the development of clubbed fingers, where the nail bed takes on a distorted angle, indicating a possible lack of oxygen in the blood, once again due to pressure of the tumour on the lungs. However, clubbing is often also associated with lung cancers, heart diseases and cystic fibrosis.

Treatment of benign mesothelioma

Discovery of a benign mesothelioma tumour will require treatment to prevent further pressure damage on adjacent organs and the possibility of the tumour becoming malignant if not removed. Unlike malignant mesothelioma, a benign mesothelioma is easily treatable, and in the majority of cases, the surgical removal of the tumour usually sufficient. However, a reappearance of a tumour can still occur several years after initial discovery so long term medical monitoring is often needed.

Benign pleural effusions

Pleural effusions, which are abnormal levels of fluid appearing around the lung usually occur up to 20 years following asbestos exposure but may appear much later. Pleural effusions can result from many medical conditions and are not serious by themselves, but some require treatment to avoid problems. Once again, a biopsy is usually required to differentiate between benign and malignant pleural effusions, and may require drainage if large or if they do not resolve spontaneously.

Around 2,400 people continue to be diagnosed with mesothelioma in UK every year, a fourfold increase since asbestos was banned in the mid 1980s ( Health & Safety Executive).