If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you are probably trying to learn as much as you can as quickly as you can about this rare and challenging condition. Though medical science is still working to find a cure, there are a number of important things that are known and understood about mesothelioma.
- Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a mineral that was used in a number of industrial and occupational settings in the United States, as well as extensively in the United States military.
- There are four types of mesothelioma: pleural (which impacts the cavity in which the lungs are found), peritoneal (which impacts the abdominal cavity), pericardial (which impacts the cavity that holds the heart), and testicular (which impacts the testes). Pleural and peritoneal are most commonly seen.
- Mesothelioma is diagnosed in approximately 2,500 Americans each year. Life expectancy has expanded as a result of research, but is still rarely more than five years from time of diagnosis, and is most frequently between twelve months and eighteen months.
Things to Remember about Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma is considered an extremely rare condition. Its incidence is falling in the United States as a result of the ban on the use of asbestos that was instituted in the mid-1980s. It is extremely common in Australia and Europe, and its incidence is on the rise in many places in the world where asbestos continues to be used. Globally over 14,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year.
If you have a history of exposure to asbestos it is important that you make your physician aware of this so that they can be on the lookout for symptoms. This will improve your chances of effective treatment if you are diagnosed.
- Pleural mesothelioma represents between 70 and 90% of all diagnosed cases, with peritoneal mesothelioma accounting for between 19 and 30%.
- Only a small percentage (between 2 and 10%) of those exposed to asbestos over a prolonged period of time will be diagnosed with mesothelioma.
- Women are far less likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma but have longer survival rates. Men are diagnosed 4.6 times more frequently than women.
- Multimodality treatment approaches have proven to be most effective in fighting mesothelioma, and have provided those patients who have received it with a median survival of 29 months.
Latency Period and Symptoms
Asbestos exposure is known to be a major risk factor for mesothelioma, but it can actually take decades for symptoms of the illness to appear. Many people who have worked around asbestos seemed fine until they received a diagnosis between two and five decades after first being exposed. This is why most people diagnosed with mesothelioma are older. It is important if you believe there is any chance you could have been exposed, that you are aware of the signs and symptoms of mesothelioma.
Pleural mesothelioma, the most common form, causes symptoms that are frustratingly similar to those of more common illnesses: a persistent cough, chest pains, and shortness of breath. These symptoms are not often taken seriously or cause misdiagnoses because they are similar to the flu or pneumonia.
Peritoneal mesothelioma, which affects the abdominal cavity, causes symptoms that may include pain and swelling in the abdomen, diarrhea, constipation, or bowel obstruction. Pericardial mesothelioma is very rare, and it causes chest pains, irregular heartbeat, palpitations, difficulty breathing, fatigue, night sweats, and a fever.
Pericardial mesothelioma is a rare type of this kind of cancer that affects the tissue lining the heart, known as the pericardium. Only a couple hundred cases of this type have ever been diagnosed. Because it is so rare, pericardial mesothelioma is difficult to diagnose. Symptoms it may cause include heart palpitations and an irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, chest pains, coughing, fatigue, heart failure, and swelling in the lower limbs.
How Mesothelioma is Diagnosed
Diagnosing mesothelioma is tricky because it is so rare and because its symptoms mimic those of more common illnesses. Even when it is clearly cancer, it is easy to misdiagnose pleural mesothelioma as lung cancer. A combination of diagnostics is used beginning with a physical examination, usually followed by imaging scans. A chest X-ray is usually the first step, followed by an MRI or CT scan.
Once the doctors have images of the chest cavity, heart, or abdomen, a biopsy can be done to sample any tissue that looks abnormal. This involves using a needle, or sometimes more invasive surgery, to remove a small piece of tissue or fluid from the area of concern. A pathologist can then look at the cells under a microscope to identify any mesothelioma cancer cells.
Treatment for mesothelioma depends on several factors: the type of mesothelioma, the stage of the cancer, and the health of the individual. Most patients are treated with a multimodal approach and a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Peritoneal mesothelioma is often treated with surgery followed by heated chemotherapy drugs that are administered directly into the abdominal cavity. Some developing treatments are just beginning to be used and tested, including gene therapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy.
Staging and Prognosis
If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you also received a stage designation. All cancers are staged from one to four, depending on how advanced it is. During stage I, the cancer remains localized, although with mesothelioma the prognosis is still not good. By stage II the cancer has spread in the local area and by stage III it has spread to lymph nodes. By stage IV the cancer has metastasized, or spread to more distant parts of the body. Managing the disease becomes more limited as the stages advance.
Financial Assistance and Compensation
Many people end up with a mesothelioma diagnosis because of being victims of asbestos exposure. Some turn to asbestos lawsuits against manufacturers of asbestos products or former employers to get compensation. Others are able to make claims with asbestos trust funds, which are specifically set up by companies to compensate victims. Veterans may turn to the Veterans Administration to get financial assistance, especially for medical care.