Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that primarily affects the tissue that lines the lungs, called the mesothelium. It can also affect the heart and abdomen. Mesothelioma diagnoses make up approximately 3 percent of all cancer diagnoses. Men are more frequently affected than women (about 400 percent). All malignant forms of mesothelioma are terminal.
The prognosis of patients diagnosed with mesothelioma is usually poor, with a life expectancy of less than one year. However, prognoses vary depending on numerous factors, most notably how early the cancer is discovered and how aggressively it is treated.
Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos, a fibrous mineral that was widely used in many industries during the twentieth century. The use of asbestos began to decline in the 1970s when its hazards became known and warnings were issued. Asbestos can be inhaled or ingested into the body and cause infection or inflammation. Asbestos exposure can affect the heart, lungs, stomach, throat, and testicles.
Four of the five types of mesothelioma are malignant cancers, while the fifth is a benign form. Pleural mesothelioma develops in the lining of the lungs, called the pleura. Comprising about three-fourths of cases of mesothelioma, it is the most common type. Peritoneal mesothelioma affects the membrane that lines the abdominal cavity, called the peritoneum. Pericardial mesothelioma affects the pericardium, which is the lining around the heart. This type makes up about 5 percent of mesothelioma cases. Testicular mesothelioma, the rarest type, affects the layer of the testicle called the tunica vaginalis.
Patients may not experience mesothelioma symptoms for at least 2 decades after asbestos exposure and can take as many as fifty years to appear. Mesothelioma symptoms mimic other conditions, which can make it difficult to diagnose mesothelioma. Mesothelioma symptoms include:
- Peritoneal: Nausea, abdominal pain and swelling, weight loss, bowel obstruction.
- Testicular: Lumps on the testicles, with or without pain.
- Pericardial: Chest pain, heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, irregular heartbeat, night sweats.
- Pleural: Chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, persistent cough, lumps under the skin of the chest.
The diagnosis of mesothelioma begins with a review of the patient’s medical history and a physical examination. If the examining practitioner suspects a problem, she may order a number of tests including lab work and imaging studies. A combination of MRI, CT, PET, and x-rays may be used to find out the cancer’s location, size, and type. Imaging studies are often followed by biopsies to detect the presence of cancer cells in fluid or tissue.
After diagnosis, applicable options are explored in order to decide the best possible treatment course. Available treatments include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgery. A combination of these is often used to try to combat the cancer in the most aggressive way possible. Called multimodality treatment, this is more likely to maximize the life expectancy of a patient than treatment using a single option.
There are also experimental treatments available. They include immunotherapy, gene therapy, and photodynamic therapy. In immunotherapy, the patient is given drugs that will suppress the immune system, since research suggests that cancer has an autoimmune property. Gene therapy involves inserting new genetic instructions to help replace the genes of the cancer cells with healthy tissue. In photodynamic therapy, the cancerous tissue is ablated (removed or destroyed) with a combination of light sensitive chemicals and a directed beam of light. The light activates the erosive component of the chemical, which in turn acts on the targeted tissue. Unfortunately, these types of treatments are still experimental as of 2010, since they have not been perfected. Since they are experimental, they are only available to patients through clinical trials. Participation in clinical trials helps to advance treatment and hasten its graduation to mainstream medicine.
Companies that used asbestos are liable for negligence in failing to protect workers, since they knew the dangers associated with asbestos exposure long before taking protective measures to minimize them. You may wish to speak with an attorney if you or someone you love has been exposed to asbestos. You may be able to obtain compensation for pain and suffering, medical bills, and lost income.