Mesothelioma is a serious and aggressive cancer that is caused by asbestos exposure. It is a rare condition, with only 3,000 new cases diagnosed each year and it can take 20 years or more to develop. It develops in the lining surrounding the lungs (pleural mesothelioma), abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma), heart (pericardial mesothelioma) and testicles (testicular mesothelioma). Because the cancer is so rare and highly aggressive, diagnosis and stage of mesothelioma should be confirmed and the disease should be treated by a mesothelioma specialist.
Asbestos and Mesothelioma
Asbestos is a needle-like, fibrous substance that naturally occurs in deposits around the U.S. and other regions. Prior to the mid-1970s, it was widely used as heat insulation in multiple industries and even though it is no longer in widespread use, it has not been banned entirely. People who have worked as pipe-fitters, steel workers, ship builders, automotive manufacturers, and in construction and demolition may have been exposed to asbestos through inhalation or ingestion. In addition, some family members of those workers may also have been exposed in the home through transportation of dust on contaminated clothing.
Mesothelioma Symptoms and Diagnosis
Mesothelioma may cause malignant tumors to begin growing in the mesothelial lining surrounding the lungs, heart, testicles or lining the abdomen. The symptoms of the disorder will vary according to the type of mesothelioma. Patients with mesothelioma may have symptoms that include:
- Difficulty breathing, coughing
- Chest, abdominal or testicular pain
- Weight loss
- Swelling in abdomen or testicles
Diagnosis of mesothelioma will be confirmed with blood tests, imaging studies, and biopsy will be used to confirm the cancer’s presence. These tests may also help to determine the stage of the mesothelioma cancer. In addition, the type of mesothelioma may determine how fast the disease will spread and how successful treatment will be.
Staging of any type of cancer, including mesothelioma, is usually dependent upon tumor development and location, lymph node involvement and whether the cancer has migrated or metastasized to another part of the body. Mesothelioma that is diagnosed early has a much better rate of successful treatment than at later stages
Stages of Mesothelioma
The stage of mesothelioma will determine how advanced the cancer is. Staging of any type of cancer, including mesothelioma, is usually dependent upon tumor development and location, lymph node involvement and whether the cancer has migrated or metastasized to another part of the body.
Mesothelioma stages are categorized from Stage 1 to Stage 4 and cancer detected in earlier stages will have more treatment options and a better chance for successful treatment.
- Stage 1 – In Stage 1 mesothelioma, the tumor is small and localized. It has not spread beyond the mesothelium. It has not affected any other organs and there is no lymph node involvement. Treatment at this stage will most commonly involve surgery to remove the tumor along with other treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation.
- Stage 2 – In Stage 2 mesothelioma, the tumor is larger and may have invaded other tissues such as the lung or muscle layers and there may be some lymph node involvement but the cancer has not spread to other organs. Treatment may involve removal of the tumor and a larger section of the lung or other tissues along with chemotherapy or radiation.
- Stage 3 – In Stage 3 mesothelioma, the tumor is much larger and has spread further into the surrounding area. More lymph nodes are also affected and surgery may not be possible but other treatments may still be considered as options.
- Stage 4 – In Stage 4 mesothelioma, the tumor is large and has invaded multiple types of tissue in the local area. Multiple lymph nodes are involved and new tumors have begun growing on distant organs such as the liver, brain or bone. Treatment at this advanced mesothelioma stage will likely involve palliative care to make the patient more comfortable and improve quality of life.
Mesothelioma Staging Systems
Mesothelioma stages may be determined by one of three different systems including:
Butchart System – the Butchart system is the oldest system and no longer as commonly used. It is based on the location of the first or primary tumor but does not generally address lymph node involvement, tissue invasion or how far the cancer has spread.
TNM System – the TNM system is used for many types of cancer and was developed by the American Joint Committee on Cancer. It categorizes the stage of mesothelioma based on tumor size (T), lymph node involvement (N) and metastasis (M).
Brigham System – the Brigham system is similar to the TNM system with assessment for tumor size, lymph node involvement, and metastases but it also provides an assessment for the likelihood of successful surgical intervention to remove the tumor at each stage of the disease.
Mesothelioma specialists may also use more than one system to ultimately determine the stage of cancer, potential treatment options and prognosis for the patient.
Depending on the location and stage of mesothelioma cancer, treatment options may include:
- Surgery – for removal of tumor along with a healthy margin of tissue. Surgery is most helpful during mesothelioma stages 1 and 2.
- Chemotherapy – medication administered to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy is often used along with other treatments but may also be used as a single type of treatment.
- Radiation – concentrated and focused energy beams used to kill mesothelioma cancer cells. Radiotherapy may be used with other treatments but its use may be limited by the location of tumor(s).
- Advanced therapies – newer treatments that target cancer cell development. Many of these are available only as part of a clinical trial.
Because mesothelioma is a very rare and highly aggressive cancer that is often fatal, it is critical that a physician who specializes in the disease be consulted. Not all oncologists are mesothelioma specialists who have the expertise and experience required to treat this potentially deadly cancer to achieve the best possible results.
It is also highly beneficial for a person diagnosed with mesothelioma to seek a second opinion. This will ensure that mesothelioma diagnosis, staging and treatment is optimal.
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.