Mesothelioma is a type of aggressive and deadly cancer. It occurs in the thin layer of tissue that covers the majority of your internal organs, also termed as the mesothelium.
Although treatment options are available for this condition, for many patients suffering from Mesothelioma, a cure is not possible. The average life expectancy for a patient after diagnosis is 12-21 months, though prognosis might improve with treatment.
Signs and symptoms of this condition generally depend on where this cancer occurs-
Pleural Mesothelioma: This type of Mesothelioma affects the tissue surrounding the lungs, and can cause various signs and symptoms such as:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Painful coughing
- Unexplained weight loss
- Lumps of tissue under your chest skin
Peritoneal Mesothelioma: This type of Mesothelioma occurs in tissue in the abdomen, and can lead to signs and symptoms such as:
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal swelling
- Unexplained weight loss
Although other forms of Mesothelioma also exist, but signs and symptoms are generally unclear, since these forms of the disease are generally rare.
Causes & risk factors
The most common and main risk factor for mesothelioma is working with asbestos. Asbestos is a group of minerals containing thin microscopic fibers, which are resistant to heat, fire as well as chemicals, and do not conduct electricity. Due to this quality, they are generally used widely in the construction, automotive, and other industries.
In the manufacturing process for asbestos, the fibers are released into the air, and they might be inhaled and swallowed, which can lead to serious health problems. The majority of mesothelioma cases are linked with exposure to asbestos during work. There is also evidence to suggest that family members and anyone living with asbestos workers also have an increased risk of developing this condition. This risk is generally the result of the dust brought home on the clothing and hair.
In some cases, Mesothelioma has also been reported in individuals with no known exposure to asbestos. Some of the uncommon but possible causes include:
Zeolites- These types of minerals are related to asbestos chemically. Exposure to erionite, another one of these related minerals, is also believed to be responsible for high rates of mesothelioma rates in areas such as Turkey, where it is commonly found.
Radiation- According to The American Cancer Society, there have been a few published reports of Mesothelioma that developed after exposure to high doses of radiation to the abdomen or chest after injections of thorium dioxide or thorotrast. This material was used by doctors in chest X-rays in the 20th century.
Genetics- According to some experts, certain people are also genetically predisposed to mesothelioma. Rates of the disease can vary among populations.
SV40 virus- Some studies in laboratory animals have also raised the possibility that infection with the simian virus 40 can increase the risk of developing mesothelioma.
If you are having signs and symptoms of mesothelioma, then your doctor will be conducting a physical exam in order to check for any lumps or any such unusual signs.
Your doctor will likely order imaging scans such as a chest X-ray and a computerized tomography scan of your abdomen or chest, in order to look for abnormalities.
Based on the findings, you might need to undergo further testing in order to determine whether mesothelioma or another disease is leading to the symptoms.
Biopsy, a procedure for removing a small portion of tissue, for laboratory examination, is the only way for determining whether you are having mesothelioma. Depending on the area of your body that is affected, your doctor will select the right biopsy procedure for you.
Once your mesothelioma has been confirmed, your doctor might need to recommend additional tests in order to understand whether cancer has spread to lymph nodes or to any other areas in your body.
Tests can include:
- CT scans of your chest and abdomen
- Positron emission tomography (PET)
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
Your doctor is going to determine which tests are appropriate for you. Then he/she is going to use the information from these tests to assign a stage to your cancer, which ranges from I to IV. The lower the number, the more it is likely to be localized to the area around the lungs, and the higher it is, the more likely it is that the cancer has spread to other areas of your body. Once your doctor is able to identify the cancer stage, he/she is going to select the treatments that are right for you.
While deciding the treatment option for you, your doctor considers several factors such as your overall health, the stage, or your cancer as well as its location.
Unfortunately, this condition is generally aggressive, and for most people, a cure isn’t possible. It is also usually diagnosed at an advanced stage when removing the cancer is not possible, through an operation. Therefore, your doctor might work to control it.
- Surgery- Surgery might sometimes be successful in curing cancer. However, most of the time, it is not possible to remove all of the cancer. In such cases, surgery can help to reduce the signs and symptoms caused by mesothelioma which is spreading in your body. Surgical options can be of various types.
- Chemotherapy- Chemotherapy involves using chemicals to kill cancer cells. Systemic chemotherapy is able to travel throughout the body and might help to shrink or slow the growth of a mesothelioma that is not removable through surgery. Chemotherapy can sometimes also be used before surgery to make the operation easier or in some cases, after surgery, for reducing the chance that cancer will return.
Chemotherapy drugs can also be heated and be directly administered into the abdominal cavity, in the case of peritoneal mesothelioma.
- Radiation therapy- This form of treatment focuses high-energy beams from sources such as protons or X-rays to a specific spot or spots on the body. Radiation can also be used after surgery for killing any remaining cancer cells. It might help in reducing symptoms of advanced cancer as well, in situations where surgery is not an option.
- Immunotherapy – Immunotherapy is a form of treatment that makes the use of your immune system to fight cancer. Your body’s disease-fighting immune system might sometimes not attack your cancer, as the cancer cells produce a protein that can blind the immune system. However, immunotherapy can interfere with this process. This option is generally used when other treatment methods are not working.
- Targeted Therapy- Targeted therapy makes the use of drugs that attack specific vulnerabilities in cancer cells.
As your pleural mesothelioma continues to spread in the chest, it can put pressure on the structures in that area, leading to complications such as difficulty in breathing and swallowing, chest pain, pain caused by pressure on the nerves and spinal cord, and accumulation of fluid in the chest, which can compress the lung nearby and make breathing even more difficult.
In order to prevent this condition, it is important to reduce your exposure to asbestos. Workers who might encounter asbestos fibers include:
- Asbestos miners
- Demolition workers
- Selected military personnel
- Shipyard workers
- Home remodelers
- Brake mechanics
If you are any of the above, then it is important to ask your employer, whether you have a risk of asbestos exposure on the job.
Remember to follow all safety precautions in your workplace, which includes wearing protective equipment. It is also best if you shower and change out of your work clothes before you are taking a lunch break or going home. You can talk to your doctor to ask if you need to take any further precautions.