Mesothelioma is an extremely rare cancer that is almost always linked directly to previous exposure to asbestos, an insulating and building material that was widely used throughout the twentieth century. Diagnosed in approximately 3,000 new patients in the United States each year, mesothelioma is also unusual in that it can take up to 50 years to fully develop and become symptomatic. This long latency period, combined with the cancer's aggressiveness, means that treatment options for mesothelioma patients are limited. The average life expectancy of an individual diagnosed with mesothelioma is 18 months after diagnosis.
Mesothelioma is usually contracted by those who have been exposed to asbestos while on the job. Asbestos is present in factories, metalworking shops, mills, shipyards, construction sites, and in any location where heat and fire present a danger. Additionally, asbestos was used in schools, office buildings and homes. Secondhand exposure to asbestos—close contact with an asbestos worker or his or her clothing—may also lead to mesothelioma. Although there is no safe level of asbestos exposure, mesothelioma is more likely to develop in those who were exposed to this carcinogen on a regular or prolonged basis.
Types of Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma affects a membrane called the mesothelium, which lines the thoracic and abdominal cavities, as well as surrounding the heart, lungs and stomach. The most common type of mesothelioma—malignant pleural mesothelioma—targets the mesothelium around the lungs. Less common are peritoneal (stomach) and pericardial (heart) mesothelioma. Mesothelioma can also affect the testes and scrotum, although this form is extremely rare, with fewer than one hundred cases diagnosed to date.
The symptoms of mesothelioma are non-specific and may closely resemble the symptoms of other, more common respiratory illnesses or conditions, such as emphysema, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or even influenza or a cold. These symptoms may include a persistent cough, coughing up blood, wheezing, hoarseness, chest or back pain, fatigue, and difficulties breathing. Often, patients attribute these symptoms to a lingering cold or other condition, or even chalk them up to aging. Only after the symptoms persist for a period of time do they consult with their physician, and even then mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed.
If the patient has ever been exposed to asbestos, he or she should make their physician aware of this, since the key to successful treatment of mesothelioma, as with most cancers, is early detection. If the symptoms of mesothelioma manifest themselves, the physician will run a number of diagnostic tests, including imaging studies, x-rays, CT scans, PET scans and MRI scans. These may show pleural thickening, deposits of calcium on the pleura, or excess fluid in the chest cavity. If any of these indicators appear, a biopsy will be performed in order to confirm the presence of mesothelioma.
Staging and Treatment of Mesothelioma
The next step is to stage the mesothelioma, or to determine how advanced the cancer is. This will dictate what type of treatment may be undertaken, as well as the patient's life expectancy. In Stage I mesothelioma, surgery may be used to remove a tumor, depending on the tumor's location and size. Chemotherapy and radiation are often used in conjunction with surgery, either to help shrink the tumor before surgery or to remove any remaining cancerous cells after surgery. In Stage II and Stage III, however, surgery is usually not viable, and the focus will be on relieving the patient's symptoms. Radiation and chemotherapy may be employed to help slow or stop the spread of the cancer, as well as to ease pain. Additionally, a minor procedure called thoracentesis or paracentesis, both of which remove excess fluid from the space between the mesothelial layers, is often useful for alleviating pain and making breathing easier. Stage IV mesothelioma, which is also referred to as "end-stage” mesothelioma, is generally not receptive to treatment, because the cancer has spread so extensively throughout the body. At this stage, most patients opt not to undergo chemotherapy or radiation, as the side effects of these treatments may outweigh their benefits. Instead, medication for pain relief, as well as hospice care, are typically administered.
Many mesothelioma patients explore alternative or homeopathic treatments, both to complement the more traditional chemotherapy and radiation, or as stand-alone treatments. Nutritional supplements, massage, acupuncture, aromatherapy, yoga and TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) therapy have all offered some relief from the painful symptoms associated with mesothelioma.
Additionally, there are many clinical trials for mesothelioma patients. By agreeing to test chemotherapy drugs or other treatment methods as part of a clinical trial, the patient may not only be able to achieve pain relief or the alleviation of symptoms, but will also play a part in helping to more effectively treat this devastating disease.
What You Should Do
If you suspect that you or a loved one are at risk of developing mesothelioma—or are currently experiencing symptoms similar to those described above—immediate action may be necessary. Learn about the disease by searching for more information, and contact your doctor as soon as possible.
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