Mesothelioma: An overview of Symptoms, Diagnoses & Treatment
In the early 1970s, a local junior high school had just received a fresh coating of asbestos. The gray, gravelled monstrosity, while an ugly blight on the landscape of the tiny town I grew up in, was a modern wonder thanks to its newly fireproofed exterior. The odd texture invited hands to run along its pebbled surface. Of course, no one had any idea that asbestos would turn out to be the killer it is, known widely today as the major cause of the devastating disease of malignant mesothelioma.
What is Malignant Mesothelioma
Malignant mesothelioma is a rare and deadly form of cancer that occurs in the soft lining that protects our organs, most commonly the lungs and chest wall. It can also develop in other organs and their linings such as the heart and abdomen. When occurring in the lining of the lungs or chest cavity it is called Pleural Mesothelioma. When in the abdominal region it is referred to as Peritoneal Mesothelioma and when affecting the heart lining it is called Pericardial mesothelioma.
The Cause of Mesothelioma
Although there remains some debate as to whether or not there may be other causes of mesothelioma, exposure to asbestos is widely accepted as the cause of this deadly disease. Specifically, one breathes in the tiny asbestos fibers which then become lodged in and irritate the mesothelial cells of the soft lining of the lungs. The fibers remain there for years and sometimes for a person’s whole life causing irritation, inflammation then malignancy. While the development of a malignancy is a complex chemical process, simply put, once lodged in the lungs, asbestos can cause healthy cells to mutate into cancer cells.
- What is asbestos?
Asbestos refers to a group of six fibrous minerals but all forms are considered cancer-causing. Asbestos use has a long history dating back to ancient times and today is mined and used for its fire-retardant qualities. The mineral is found in many old buildings and building materials and is still used in many materials throughout the United States and the world. Asbestos also occurs naturally and minute amounts exist in the air we breathe and in the water we drink.
Symptoms of Mesothelioma
The disease behaves in a similar way regardless of where it attacks and can be difficult to first diagnose because mesothelioma symptoms are similar to other diseases and other cancers. Main symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Weight loss
- Fever and/ or night sweats
- Fluid in the chest or abdominal cavity
- Abdominal mass
- Digestive issues
Diagnoses of the Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma has a long latency period that can range from 15 to 50 years. This means that after an initial exposure to asbestos, it can be many years before symptoms of the disease manifest in an individual. And one need not have had prolonged exposure to asbestos to be affected adversely. Because if it’s long latency period, rareness, and the fact that symptoms mirror other diseases including other types of cancers, diagnoses can be difficult. The most common diagnostic tools are the imaging ones and typically include the following:
- CT scans
- MRI scans
- PET scans
Once a diagnoses is made, treatment options must be considered, depending on the stage of the disease and the type. The stages of the disease are designated by the location of the primary tumor, the number and size of tumors, and whether the tumors have metastasized (traveled to other regions). The patient is also examined to see if the tumor has affected the lymph nodes. After diagnoses, further tests are required to understand the stage of the tumor including a physical exam; blood, urine and stool tests; tissue sample testing and sometimes exploratory surgery.
Treatments for Mesothelioma
Sadly, there is no proven cure for mesothelioma to date, and treatments are not always successful at relieving the disease or patient. The choice of treatment depends on the overall health of the patient as well as the type and stage of the disease. Those with early-stage mesothelioma are sometimes candidates for surgery in order to remove tumors while later-stage patients are offered chemotherapy, often in combination with other treatments like radiation. Sometimes, either in conjunction with or instead of, treating the disease, symptoms are treated in order to alleviate pain and suffering of the patient. Thankfully, research is ongoing.
Mesothelioma is considered by most to be terminal, with no way to avoid the last stage of the disease ~ which is death. The five-year survival rate is low with mesothelioma as often the diagnoses come too late. The five-year survival is only between approximately 7 and 20% with a high incidence of death within the first year after diagnoses.
Malignant mesothelioma an ugly and slow-moving disease for which we need a cure. According to the Cancer Society, between 2000 and 3000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma in the United States each year and the incidence of diagnoses in Canada is rising. The positive news is that, because of our knowledge of its danger to our health and its restricted use, incidence of this disease should peak then decline in future years.
While asbestos use is strictly regulated today, in earlier decades it was used all over the world as a fire-proofing material on walls, tiles, roofs, ceilings, floors, pipes and water boilers, and was even found in work clothing. Most people in the world have been exposed to asbestos at some point but mesothelioma usually presents in those who have worked with asbestos. Still, it is important that, if one experiences any of the above symptoms, one informs their doctor to any possible exposure to asbestos in the past, regardless of how incidental it may seem.