Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that affects the thin membranes covering and protecting certain body organs. It is an aggressive cancer that is caused by long-term or acute exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma most commonly affects the lungs, as pleural mesothelioma, but may affect other organs as well such as the chest cavity, heart and testicular region. It is a rare cancer with only 3,000 new cases being diagnosed yearly, however many of these cases take 20 to 50 years to develop and victims often do not know they have the cancer, consequently more cases continue to arise each year and many more people may have mesothelioma.
Finding a specialist
As mesothelioma is a rare and sometimes aggressive cancer, it is essential that the right treatment regimen be given. Finding a physician who has extensive experience in treating mesothelioma is essential. A mesothelioma specialists will be able to formulate a treatment plan with the highest chance of success using a combination of “traditional” treatments such as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, along with newer therapies. Some of these newer treatments are still in development stage and available as part of a clinical trial. Physicians who specialize in treatment of mesothelioma can present all of a patient’s treatment options to achieve the best possible outcome.
Mesothelioma Tumor Types
Mesothelioma may be difficult to diagnose as the symptoms may be confused with other disorders. Mesothelioma forms tumors or unnatural growths in the affected area which may be;
Benign Mesothelioma Tumors – Benign tumors are not considered cancerous. These are non-malignant growths which, though non-cancerous, may grow large enough to compress other organs and cause significant medical injury. In most cases, benign tumors affecting the mesothelium will be removed with surgery, however they will be examined microscopically and if any cancer cells are found, the tumor will be treated in the same way as cancerous mesothelioma.
Malignant Mesothelioma Tumor – Malignant mesothelioma is considered to be “true” cancer. The cells of the affected area have begun dividing uncontrollably, forming tumors, infecting lymph node and possibly spreading to distant parts of the body including other organs such as the brain, liver, kidneys and bones. Often by the time a patient receives a mesothelioma diagnosis, the disease has been developing for many years and is in advanced stages, making it extremely hard to treat.
Types of Mesothelioma
Asbestos exposure, whether long-term or acute, can result in several types of mesothelioma which are defined by the area of the body in which cancer develops.
Pleural Mesothelioma – Mesothelioma cancer of the lining of the lungs, known as pleural mesothelium. About 75 percent of cases are pleural mesothelioma which has been caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers. These fibers have lodged in the lung tissue and over time, cause cells to start growing uncontrollably, forming a mesothelial tumor. Patients are often not diagnosed until later stages as symptoms may appear to similar to other diseases. Pleural mesothelioma may have symptoms such as:
- Cough which does not go away
- Fluid around the lungs which causes
- Shortness of breath
- Persistent chest pain
- Difficulty swallowing
- Fatigue or unexplained tiredness
- Weight loss
Pleural mesothelioma has a poor prognosis, with less than 10 percent of patients living to the five-year survival point.
Peritoneal Mesothelioma – Mesothelioma cancer of the lining of the abdomen, known as peritoneal mesothelium. About 25 percent of cases are pleural mesothelioma which has been caused by ingestion of asbestos fibers. These fibers have lodged in the abdominal tissue and over time, cause cells to start growing uncontrollably, forming a mesothelial tumor. Peritoneal mesothelioma may have symptoms such as:
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea / Vomiting
- Bowel irregularity
- Fluid in abdomen (ascites)
- General fatigue
- Weight loss
Prognosis and the potential for successful treatment of peritoneal mesothelioma will depend heavily on how far the disease has progressed and other disease and patient characteristics.
Pericardial Mesothelioma –
Mesothelioma cancer of the lining surrounding the heart, known as pericardial mesothelium. Only about 5 percent of cases are pericardial mesothelioma which has been caused by asbestos fibers which have lodged in the pericardial tissue and over time, cause cells to start growing uncontrollably, forming a mesothelial tumor. Pericardial mesothelioma is difficult to diagnose and is most commonly found after the patient has died, as symptoms look very similar to other heart diseases, however pericardial mesothelioma may have symptoms such as:
- Chest pain or angina
- Irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia
- Shortness of breath
- General fatigue
- Weight loss
As pericardial mesothelioma is difficult to diagnose and not often discovered while the patient is living, the disease is not easily treated.
Testicular Mesothelioma –
Mesothelioma cancer of the lining surrounding the testicles, known as testicular mesothelium. It is the rarest type of mesothelioma and is caused by asbestos fibers which have lodged in the testicles for unknown reasons. It only occurs in less than 1 percent of all mesothelioma cases and is difficult to diagnose but may have a better prognosis than other types. Even though it may not be noticed or is confused with other disorders, patients may notice symptoms such as:
- Fluid in scrotum
- Swollen Testicle(s)
- Testicular pain
- Redness of scrotum
Though symptoms of mesothelioma may appear suddenly, the disease may take 20 to 50 years to develop. In most cases, patients who develop mesothelioma have been exposed to asbestos in previous occupations over long periods of time. People who worked in industries that used asbestos as a heat insulator are most at risk including steel workers, construction workers, ship yard workers, automotive technicians and assemblers, steelworkers and pipefitters and other industries. In some cases, family members may also have been affected as fibers on work clothing were transported into the home.
Mesothelioma diagnosis will often include a long series of “ruling out” other diseases that have similar symptoms but diagnosis may be ultimately made through imaging studies and specific blood tests. Imaging studies such as X-rays, CT scans and PET scans, along with blood studies that test for particular proteins. In many cases, a biopsy or cellular sample may be taken of the tumor itself, which will be examined by a pathologist under microscopic vision to confirm cancer cell development and type.
Different types of mesothelioma cells develop from different layers of tissue and may be identified including:
The type of cancer cells, the type of mesothelioma, the stage of cancer development and other characteristics will determine available treatment options which may include surgery, radiation and treatment with medications of various types including chemotherapy, along with other treatment methods.
Staging of mesothelioma tumors
No matter what the mesothelioma type is or where the tumor is located, the stage of cancer will be a major factor in treatment options and the prognosis or patient chance for recovery.
- Stage I – tumor is small and generally confined to the area of the original tumor
- Stage II – tumor is larger, may have infiltrated healthy tissue, and a small number of nearby lymph nodes may be infected
- Stage III – tumor is quite large and has infiltrated healthy tissue and / or a larger number of lymph nodes are infected
- Stage IV – tumor has spread beyond the initial site into many lymph nodes, affecting distant organs which may now be growing new tumors in places like the liver, brain, bones, or other organs.
Mesothelioma treatment options
Depending on the type and stage of mesothelioma, treatment may involve one or more procedures including:
- Surgery – to remove the tumor(s) and a portion of healthy tissue. The type of surgery will depend on the location and stage of the tumor and infiltration of the cancer.
- Traditional chemotherapy – treatment with cancer-killing drugs is chosen based on tumor type and location, along with patient characteristics. Chemotherapy is often used in combination with surgery but may be used as a single-treatment regimen.
- Radiation –concentrated energy beams such as X-rays are focused on the area of the tumor to kill the cancer cells. Radiation treatment may be used before or after surgery to increase the chance of cancer eradication.
- Clinical trials – newer therapies are in continuous development and testing at many cancer centers and may include medications, light therapy, gene therapy and radiotherapy advances. Patients who see a mesothelioma specialist may be given the option to enter appropriate clinical trials.
Mesothelioma treatment costs
Mesothelioma is well-known to be caused by exposure to asbestosis. As this is a long-term, but continuously emerging disease, companies have been held liable for the costs of mesothelioma treatment and losses caused by the cancer.
Multiple lawsuits have been filed against companies responsible, and many have been successful including victims who were awarded tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. There is also an asbestos relief fund set aside to provide for asbestos related health disorder treatment and loss, including mesothelioma.
Each mesothelioma case is different and should be evaluated independently but if you are a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you may be eligible for compensation for your injuries or losses.