NORTH PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- You've probably heard of mesothelioma from commercials by law firms representing patients.
However, few people really know what it is.
It's a very difficult cancer, but there is new hope for treating it.
"It's a rare malignancy," says Dr. Hossein Borghaei, a thoracic medical oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center.
"There's only about 3,000 cases a year in the United States," add Dr. Joseph Friedberg, thoracic-surgeon-in-chief at Temple Health.
Doctors Friedberg and Borghaei say mesothelioma is a different kind of lung cancer.
Instead of tumors within the lungs ...
"Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the chest cavity. It can also occur in the lining of the abdomen," notes Dr. Friedberg.
Most cases are caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos is still legal in the United States, but its use now is limited.
But it used to be very common.
"Brake linings, and around boilers and pipes. And I think before the mid-80s, it was in all military vehicles because it's a great fire insulator," says Dr. Friedberg.
When fibers are inhaled, they work their way through the lungs, lodging in the chest cavity.
It generally takes 20-40 years for any cancers to develop.
Most, but not all, get asbestos from exposure on the job.
"I have a fair number of patients, women who would wash dad's clothes," says Dr. Friedberg.
Doctors Friedberg and Borghaei say a multidisciplinary team is a must.
After the visible cancer is removed during intricate surgery, the chest cavity is washed out to kill the remaining cells.
For cells hiding elsewhere, patients need more.
Dr. Friedberg has a trial using radiation after surgery.
Dr. Borghaei is working with two drugs to jumpstart a patient's immunity.
"Immunotherapy with the two-drug regimen was a lot more effective than standard chemo. So again, that's the first time we've had anything that extended life," says Dr. Borghaei.
Fox Chase is also part of an escalating drive in research to find triggers, to stop mesothelioma before it starts.
"We're going to make headway soon in this disease," says Dr. Borghaei.
He credits the mesothelioma community with coming together to accelerate funding and research.