What is Mesothelioma? Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that affects the lining of the internal organs (the mesothelium). Mesothelioma is almost always linked to direct or indirect exposure to asbestos, which is commonly used in commercial fire-proof insulation. Since most asbestos exposure occurs through inhalation, the most common area to develop mesothelioma is the pleura (outer lining of the lungs and internal chest wall).
Mesothelioma can also develop in the pericardium (sac around the heart), peritoneum (lining in the abdominal cavity) and the tunica vaginalis (sac around the testes). Mesothelioma is diagnosed in about 3,000 people a year, or about .3 percent of all cancer diagnoses. Mesothelioma is one of the hardest cancers to diagnose since symptoms don’t occur until after the cancer has already formed, which is never earlier than 15-50 years after the initial exposure to asbestos. Some common early symptoms of Mesothelioma are shortness of breath, coughing, fatigue, weight loss and reduced respiratory function. The average life expectancy of a person diagnosed with mesothelioma is 50-65 years old.
What causes mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is almost always linked asbestos exposure, whether directly or indirectly. Direct exposure to asbestos occurs through inhalation or digestion, often times by workers in construction and manufacturing industries. Indirect exposure can occur when someone comes into contact with a person who has recently been directly exposed as the fibrous crystals of asbestos can cling to clothing and hair.
Even though scientists are sure that mesothelioma is linked to exposure to asbestos, they are unsure exactly how the asbestos interacts with cells to cause them to mutate into cancerous cells.
Common treatments for mesothelioma
Treatment for mesothelioma largely depends on what stage the cancer is in at the time of diagnosis. There are four stages of mesothelioma:
Stage I pleural mesothelioma is the earliest stage of the cancer and is localized to one portion of the lining of the chest.
Stage II mesothelioma has spread past the lining of the chest to the diaphragm or lungs.
Stage III mesothelioma may have spread to nearby lymph nodes.
Stage IV mesothelioma is an advanced cancer and has spread extensively within the chest. Stage IV mesothelioma may indicate that the cancer has spread beyond the chest and even into the brain.
Surgery is the first choice of treatment when the cancer is caught at an early stage and even then it may not be possible to remove all of the cancer. In cases where removing all of the cancer is not possible, surgery may still provide relief from symptoms of mesothelioma spreading further into the body. Chemotherapy may also be used in early stages of mesothelioma to help shrink the cancer before surgery to make it easier to remove, or after surgery if surgeons were not able to remove all of it. Chemotherapy may also help to slow the growth of cancer cells. In cases where mesothelioma is already in its advanced stages when it is diagnosed, there are few treatments available other than trying to control symptoms to improve the patient’s quality of life and make them more comfortable.