Football player, actor, Merlin Olsen, succumbs to mesothelioma

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Football Hall of Famer turned actor, Merlin Olsen has died of mesothelioma. Olsen was part of the Los Angeles Rams’ famous Fearsome Foursome in the 1960s, and was elected to the Football Hall of Fame in 1982. After a stint as a TV football commentator, Olsen co-starred with Michael Landon on Little House on the Prairie, and eventually got his own show- Father Murphy. He was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma a year ago.

Mesothelioma (sometimes called meso) is a rare cancer of the mesothelium, the lining of the chest cavity. The mesothelium consists of two layers of cells, one which covers the lungs, and the other which covers the inner chest wall. The mesothelial cells produce a small amount of fluid (pleural fluid) which provide lubrication between these two layers, and allow the organs of the chest (lungs, heart, blood vessels) to move smoothly in the chest. The “potential space” between these two layers is called the pleural space, and is usually very small, as the two layers normally slide against each other. In disease states (such as pneumonia, congestive heart failure, as well as mesothelioma) additional fluid can be produced, leading to a pool of pleural fluid into the pleural space called a pleural effusion.

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Mesothelioma is relatively rare, with 2000-3000 cases a year. It primarily occurs in men. Exposure to asbestos, often 20-30 years prior to diagnosis, has been linked to the disease. Symptoms of mesothelioma may not appear until 30 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos. Shortness of breath and pain in the chest due to an accumulation of fluid in the pleura are often symptoms of pleural mesothelioma. Treatment for mesothelioma depends on the location of the cancer, the stage of the disease, and the patient’s age and general health. It can consist of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these modalities.

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Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.


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