Mesothelioma is a rare cancer found in the mesothelium. The mesothelium is the thin lining of tissue covering most internal organs such as the lungs and heart. Mesothelioma is categorized by the organ which is affected. The most frequent occurrence is the lungs; this type is called pleural malignant mesothelioma. More rarely the tissue surrounding the heart, abdomen, or testicles may be affected.
The symptoms of mesothelioma differ depending on where the cancer develops. Pleural and peritoneal mesotheliomas are the most well documented types of the cancer. A clear collection of symptoms for the other types have not been compiled because so little information is available.
Peritoneal mesothelioma – occurs in the tissue surrounding the abdomen
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal swelling
- Digestive disturbances
- Distention of the abdomen
- Lumps in the abdomen
- Unexplained weight loss
Pleural mesothelioma – occurs in the tissue surrounding the lungs
- Chest pain
- Lumps in and around the chest area
- Painful coughing
- Shortness of breath
- Unexplained weight loss
Cancer usually begins when there are genetic mutations at the cellular level which cause those cells to multiply and grow out of control. Researchers are still not certain what cause the genetic mutations which cause mesothelioma although several risk factors, such as asbestos exposure, have been identified. As with most cancers it is probably a combination of genetic predisposition, lifestyle choices, and environmental exposures.
Symptoms of mesothelioma are very similar to other medical conditions which make diagnosing the disease difficult. Typically, a doctor will begin by conducting a physical exam to look for any masses. Imaging scans such as x-rays and CT scans may be ordered for the abdomen or chest. Based on these additional tests may be ordered such as a biopsy and lab tests. There are several types of biopsies which can be performed depending on the location of the mesothelioma such as fine-needle aspiration, laparoscopy, thoracoscopy, thoracotomy, and laparotomy.
Once tests have determined the presence of mesothelioma, the cancer must be staged. The stage of the cancer explains how extensive it is. To do this additional imaging tests may be ordered such as an MRI, PET, CT, or X-ray.
The stages of mesothelioma are:
- Stage I – the cancer is localized and limited to one area of the body
- Stage II – the cancer may have spread beyond the initial area to adjacent areas
- Stage III – the cancer may have spread even further or have compromised nearby lymph nodes
- Stage IV – advanced cancer which has spread extensively, possibly to different areas of the body
The recommended treatment for mesothelioma depends on the location and stage of the cancer an individual is suffering with. Unfortunately, the disease is very aggressive and difficult to detect at the earliest stages.
Chemotherapy – Chemotherapy may be used to shrink the cancer or slow future growth of mesothelioma that cannot be removed with surgery. It may also be used prior to surgery to make the process easier or after surgery to reduce instances of recurrence. Chemotherapy may be introduced using traditional methods or may be administered directly into the chest or abdominal cavity in order to limit the effect on healthy cells.
Clinical Trials – Clinical trials are new procedures and medications that have not received FDA approval. Because of the aggressive and deadly nature of the disease some patients elect to try new therapies that may have an increased rate of success especially when traditional methods are not possible or have not worked.
Radiation Therapy – Radiation therapy is most frequently used to reduce symptoms or to prevent the spread of the cancerous cells following surgery or biopsy.
Surgery – Surgical intervention is most successful in patients who receive a diagnosis in the earliest stages of the disease. Surgery may be performed to decrease the buildup of fluid, remove tissue surrounding the abdomen or lungs, remove as much of the cancer as possible, removing the lung and surrounding tissue.
Palliative Care – Unfortunately, recovery from mesothelioma is not always possible. Many physicians will focus on improving end of life quality for patients whose cancer cannot be treated successfully.
It is important to note that most people who develop mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos at some point. Individuals working in environments where asbestos may be present should follow all precautions as outlined by their employer. High risk jobs include mining, factory work, insulation manufactures and installers, ship builders, construction workers, and auto mechanics. Older homes, offices, factories, and schools may have been built with materials containing asbestos. Care should be taken in remodeling or removing these structures.