Mesothelioma is a type of cancer caused by asbestos exposure. It is a rare cancer with only 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma emerging each year. Even though the time between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma diagnosis may be 20 or more years, the cancer can be very aggressive.
Mesothelioma tumors develop in the mesothelium, a particular type of tissue that lines or surrounds organs in certain areas of the body such as the lungs (pleural mesothelioma), abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma), heart (pericardial mesothelioma) and testicles (testicular mesothelioma). Since it is a rare cancer, many physicians do not have experience treating the disease. Patients who are diagnosed with mesothelioma should seek help from a specialist
Mesothelioma and Asbestos
Asbestos is a naturally occurring, needle-like fiber that was used for many years as high-heat insulation. Though it is no longer in widespread use, people who worked in industries like steel working, pipe fitting, ship building, automotive manufacturing, demolition and construction may have had significant exposure to asbestos.
The fibers may have been inhaled or ingested, lodging in body tissues which cause inflammation and cellular mutations, which over long periods of time, cause tumor development. In some cases, the exposure occurred over many years but in other case, exposure may have been acute. Family members of those workers may also have been exposed when dust was transported into living areas on clothing.
As the cancer may take years to develop, mesothelioma diagnosis may be difficult. Symptoms may emerge suddenly and can appear to mimic other disorders. Once mesothelioma is suspected, a number of diagnostic procedures may be used.
Complete Medical History – Obtaining a thorough medical history is the first step in diagnosing mesothelioma. The physician and his staff will collect information about previous diseases, medical conditions, surgeries and family history of medical disorders. The patient’s background including the possibility of occupational exposure to asbestos will be identified.
Imaging Studies – In most cases, imaging studies will be performed to identify tumor development in the area that mesothelioma is expected to have begun.
- X-Ray – the most traditional type of imaging study will likely be the first imaging study performed. X-rays are especially helpful at identifying fluid build-up which is the cause of a number of mesothelioma symptoms such as difficulty breathing and swelling.
- CT Scan – Computer Tomography or CT scan is commonly used to provide a three-dimensional image of body tissues. It provides a picture of organ shape and anomalies and in many cases, clearly identifies tumor location, size and characteristics.
- PET – Positron Emission Tomography or PET scan is a “nuclear medicine” imaging procedure. A small amount of radioactive medicine will be given intravenously. Cancerous cells will appear differently on a PET scan than normal tissue, particularly if the cancer has metastasized or traveled to other parts of the body.
- MRI – Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI scans use a magnetic field and radio frequency pulsing to identify tissue abnormalities such as tumor development. In some cases, radiopaque medication will be injected intravenously prior to the procedure. As MRI involves high-powered magnetic fields, some patients may not be eligible for MRI if medical devices containing certain metal types have been surgically placed inside the patient’s body.
- Blood Testing – Mesothelioma tumors may release certain proteins into the blood stream. Laboratory blood testing may identify these unique proteins.
- Biopsy – Biopsy involved the removal of suspected cancerous tissue which will then be examined under a microscope by a pathologist. The pathologist can identify cells which are cancerous and can also categorize what type of tissue the tumor(s) have invaded.
- Needle Biopsy – A large needle may be inserted into the area of the suspected tumor so that a small number of cells may be drawn out. This type of biopsy is less invasive than surgery but can present challenges if the needle placement is not accurate and cancerous tissue is not removed. To increase accuracy, needle biopsy is sometimes performed with guidance of a CT-scan during the procedure. In other cases, needle biopsy may be done as part of a VATS or visual-assisted thorascopic surgery where needle placement is guided by a small camera.
- Surgical Biopsy – Surgical biopsy is much more invasive and involves tissue removal during an open surgery. If performed as a tool for mesothelioma diagnosis, it presents the same risks as other surgeries including infection and bleeding. In many cases however, surgical biopsy is performed as part of a surgical treatment in which the mesothelioma tumor is being removed to confirm cancer presence and confirm that enough healthy tissue surrounding the tumor was excised to prevent cancer recurrence.
These diagnostic procedures will not only confirm the presence of mesothelioma but will also identify how advanced the cancer has become including tumor location and size, lymph node involvement, tissue and organ penetration and metastases or tumor development in other parts of the body. Treatment options will be determined based on the mesothelioma diagnostic procedures and type of the cancer.
The symptoms of mesothelioma vary according to the type of the disease and are an important part of diagnosing mesothelioma.
As confirmed by diagnostic tools, mesothelioma may occur in several locations with symptoms including:
Lungs – pleural mesothelioma
- Difficulty breathing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Persistent cough
- Chest pain
- Weight loss
Abdomen – peritoneal mesothelioma
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal swelling due to fluid collection (ascites)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Bowel irregularity
- Weight loss
Heart – pericardial mesothelioma
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Irregular heart beat or arrhythmia
- Weight loss
Testicles or scrotum – testicular mesothelioma
- Swelling of the scrotum
- Redness of the scrotum
- Testicular pain
Depending on the location and severity of the cancer and the type of cells involved, determined during mesothelioma diagnosis procedures, treatment options may include:
- Surgery – removal of tumor(s) along with a healthy margin of tissue. In severe cases of pleural mesothelioma, some patients may require removal of the entire infected lung.
- Chemotherapy – administration of cancer-killing medication. Traditional chemotherapy may be used through intravenous infusion or orally to eradicate cancer cells. In many cases, chemotherapy is used alongside other treatments but in other cases it is performed as a standalone therapy.
- Radiation – concentrated energy beams that are focused on tumor tissue to kill cancerous cells. Radiotherapy may be used alone or in combination with other procedures.
- Advanced therapies – newer treatments that target immune functioning or involve procedures such aslight-therapymay not yet be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but may be available as part of a clinical trial when the patient qualifies.
Stages of Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma diagnostic tools will also help identify the stage of cancer. Cancer detected at earlier stages has a greater chance of cure. It is important to consult a mesothelioma specialist as quickly as possible after diagnosis so that treatment may begin immediately.
- Stage 1 – cancer is localized as small tumor and there is no lymph node involvement
- Stage 2 – tumor is still localized and has not invaded other tissues but may be larger and have infected some lymph nodes
- Stage 3 – cancer may have invaded healthy tissue layers with a larger tumor and more lymph node involvement
- Stage 4 – cancer may have spread throughout lymph system and/or may have traveled to distant organs
Mesothelioma treatment costs
Mesothelioma has been clearly linked to asbestos exposure. Because of this, companies who were involved in the industries using asbestos have been held liable for treatment costs for many patients. Some patients who have filed mesothelioma lawsuits have received hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to cover the cost of treatment, disability or loss of life. In addition, a mesothelioma fund has been established which still contains $30 billion in funds.
Each case of mesothelioma is unique and just like the patient should seek assistance from a medical mesothelioma specialists for diagnosis and treatment, victims should seek evaluation by legal experts who have expertise in mesothelioma cases.