If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, it is essential to learn more about this deadly disease, how it affects the body, how to recognize signs and symptoms, and what can be done to treat it. Learning the answer to the question “what is mesothelioma?” requires an understanding of this rare disease and the different forms it can take. Gaining knowledge of mesothelioma can allow you to seek help for yourself or a family member, both in terms of medical treatment and legal advice.
Mesothelioma is a Rare Type of Cancer
Malignant mesothelioma is a specific kind of cancer that is rare but deadly. It is a type of cancer that occurs in the mesothelium, which the Mayo Clinic identifies as the thin layer of tissue that covers the majority of a person’s organs. The American Cancer Society explains that the mesothelium “helps protect your organs by making a special lubricating fluid that allows organs to slide against each other” and “makes it easier for your lungs to move (expand and contract) inside your chest when you breathe.”
According to the American Lung Association, mesothelioma occurs most often in the lining of a person’s lungs, known as the pleura, and in the lining of a person’s abdomen, known as the peritoneum. Mesothelioma is diagnosed most commonly in the pleura, and second most often in the peritoneum. In rarer cases, mesothelioma can be found in the lining of a person’s heart, which is known as the pericardium, in the lining membrane of a person’s testicles, known as the tunica vaginalis, or in a person’s scrotal lining.
How Mesothelioma Affects the Human Body
Mesothelioma starts in a manner that is like any other type of cancer: mutations occur in a person’s cells, and then the cell multiplies in large numbers and causes a tumor. The mutations or changes happen in the DNA of the cell. A cell’s DNA is extremely important because the DNA is what contains instructions for the cell, including to grow and to multiply. When there is a mutation to the Mesothelial, tumors can begin in any part of the mesothelium. Not all tumors are malignant. Some mesothelial tumors can be benign. Other tumors are cancerous and are malignant mesothelioma.
Different Types of Mesothelioma
There are several different types of mesothelioma with which a person can be diagnosed. Those types of mesothelioma include the following:
- Mesothelioma of the pleura, or pleural mesothelioma (the pleura is the lining of the lungs)
- Mesothelioma of the peritoneum, or peritoneal mesothelioma (the peritoneum is the lining of the abdomen)
- Mesothelioma of the pericardium, or pericardial mesothelioma (the pericardium is the lining of the heart)
- Mesothelioma of the tunica vaginalis (the tunica vaginalis is the lining of the testicles).
The Facts about Mesothelioma
What do you need to know about the incidence rate of mesothelioma and who is most likely to be affected? The following facts and figures come from the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society:
- Approximately 3,000 cases of malignant mesothelioma are diagnosed in the United States every year
- Approximately 80 percent of malignant mesothelioma diagnoses are linked to asbestos exposure
- The average age of diagnosis with malignant mesothelioma, most frequently for pleural mesothelioma, is 72
- Mesothelioma occurs more often in patients who are white or identify as Hispanic/Latino than in patients who are African American or Asian American
- Diagnosis rates of mesothelioma showed increases from the 1970s through the early 1990s, but rates of mesothelioma diagnoses have declined since the 1990s
- Mesothelioma is diagnosed much more frequently in men than women
- Various risk factors for mesothelioma exist, including exposure to asbestos, exposure to zeolites, radiation, infection with simian virus 40 (SV40), age, gender, and genetic mutations in the BAP1 gene
- Mesothelioma usually takes a very long time to develop when it results from asbestos exposure, and the average is between 20 and 50 years from the date of the person’s first exposure to asbestos
- Mesothelioma treatments have improved, but cancer remains both aggressive and deadly
- Five-year survival rates for malignant pleural mesothelioma are approximately 30 percent
- The survival rate for mesothelioma will depend upon whether the cancer is localized, has become regional by spreading to the lymph nodes or nearby structures, or is distant and has spread to distant parts of the patient’s body such as bones or organs
What are the Common Symptoms of Malignant Mesothelioma?
Since there are many different types of malignant mesothelioma, symptoms can vary depending upon the location of cancer. From person to person, symptoms of a specific type of malignant mesothelioma can also vary, so it is important to seek medical advice if you have any signs or symptoms associated with a form of mesothelioma, or if you have any unusual symptoms that suggest something is wrong. General signs and symptoms of mesothelioma may include but are not limited to the following:
- Chest pain
- Painful coughing
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Skin lumps
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal swelling
- Testicular swelling
- Mass on the testicle or elsewhere on the body
- Unexplained weight loss
Risk Factors of Malignant Mesothelioma
In the event that individuals show any signs or symptoms of the disease, people who have been near or around the same environment should be notified of the possibility of exposure. The following are identified as risk factors for malignant mesothelioma:
- Asbestos exposure: Exposure to asbestos is the primary risk factor for developing pleural mesothelioma. A large number of pleural mesothelioma cases that have been diagnosed have occurred in patients who experienced exposure to high levels of asbestos, which occurs most often in workplaces. Asbestos fibers are minerals that occur naturally, and they can be found in rocks, soil, and other parts of the natural world. For a long time, asbestos was used in various types of building and insulation materials, including pipe and wall insulation, flooring glue, roofing materials, and other building materials. When workers are exposed to asbestos through mining, demolition, construction, and other related types of work, they can inhale asbestos fibers into their lungs. Those asbestos fibers can travel into the pleural lining of the person’s chest and lung wall, and after a period of time can develop into mesothelioma.
- Exposure to zeolites: Zeolites, like asbestos, are also naturally occurring minerals that are similar in some ways to asbestos. In particular, zeolites are found in erionite, which is a mineral that has been found in certain states in the United States, particularly in the West. Researchers have found evidence of erionite in Arizona, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, and Utah. People who have lived in these states, and who have been diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma and have been exposed to erionite, may have developed the disease as a result of their exposure to this mineral.
- Living with a person who works with asbestos: If you currently live or previously lived with a person who works with asbestos, you could also be at increased risk of developing mesothelioma. It is important to know that asbestos fibers can be carried home on a person’s clothing or on their skin after exposure at work in construction, demolition, mining, plumbing, and other types of work. If asbestos fibers are brought into a household, another person in that household can be exposed, and after exposure, following a number of years, a family member may develop mesothelioma. It is important for anyone who works with asbestos or may be exposed to asbestos in the course of their work to change their clothes and shower before coming home and potentially exposing family members to asbestos.
- Radiation: Some types of cancer treatment require a patient to undergo radiation therapy or treatment. In some cases, exposure to high amounts of radiation to the chest or the abdomen can result in a subsequent malignant mesothelioma diagnosis. However, the American Cancer Society underscores that malignant mesothelioma linked to radiation alone is quite rare.
- Simian Virus 40, or SV40: Some research has suggested that a person’s infection with simian virus 40, or SV40, may be linked to a malignant mesothelioma diagnosis. However, this research remains ongoing. How would a person be infected with SV40? Humans who have been infected with SV40 have largely acquired this virus through contaminated vaccines, particularly in the types of polio vaccines that were used in the 1950s and 1960s.
- Age: Your risk of developing mesothelioma, similar to many other types of cancers, increases as you age. Although malignant mesothelioma can be diagnosed in a young person, it is nearly always diagnosed in patients over the age of 45, and most often in patients aged 65 and up. Approximately two-thirds of all cases of malignant mesothelioma affecting the pleura occur in patients who are at least 65 years old.
- Gender: Men are diagnosed with mesothelioma much more often than women, but the risk factor of gender is most likely attributed to the types of jobs that have been traditionally done by men in which exposure to asbestos was more likely.
- Genetics: Certain genetics, or inherited gene mutations, can increase a person’s risk for many types of cancers, including malignant mesothelioma. The American Cancer Society identifies inherited gene mutations to the BAP1 gene as a potential risk factor for malignant mesothelioma. Any family history of mesothelioma could also mean that you are more likely than other people to develop this rare type of cancer.
How Mesothelioma is Diagnosed?
If you have any signs or symptoms of malignant mesothelioma, it is important to seek a medical assessment from a healthcare provider. Seeing a doctor is particularly important if you have any risk factors for developing mesothelioma, especially if you have been exposed to asbestos. In order to receive a diagnosis, a physician will usually begin with a physical exam. During a physical exam, your doctor will look for any visible signs of mesothelioma, such as lumps. In addition, your healthcare provider will likely order scans in order to determine whether there are any signs in your body of mesothelioma.
Scans that a doctor may order can include an X-ray of your chest, or a computerized tomography scan (CT scan). CT scans are usually used to determine whether there are any signs of malignant mesothelioma in your chest or in your abdomen, as well as whether there are signs of any other type of abnormality in your body that could indicate cancer. If there are indications that a patient may have mesothelioma, the doctor will order a biopsy.
Treating Malignant Mesothelioma
Different types of treatment may be available for malignant mesothelioma, but those treatment options are usually unlikely to cure cancer entirely. Moreover, a person’s treatment options will depend upon the type of mesothelioma with which they have been diagnosed, the location of the mesothelioma, and the stage of cancer. The reason that mesothelioma typically cannot be cured is that it has spread to an advanced stage by the time it is diagnosed. Depending upon a person’s wishes, it may be possible to live for a longer period of time by undergoing surgery and treatment, even if there are side effects. Other people who are diagnosed with mesothelioma may prefer to receive treatments that limit the effects of the disease and allow them to live as comfortably as possible with the disease.
If mesothelioma is diagnosed at an early stage, surgery may be able to remove cancer entirely. Because malignant mesothelioma is typically diagnosed at a later stage, removing all of cancer usually is not possible with surgery. However, even in cases where the mesothelioma has spread and is diagnosed at a later stage, surgical procedures can still be used to remove some of the cancer and lessen the symptoms associated with it. Common treatment options for malignant mesothelioma include the following:
- Surgery: Surgery can be used to decrease fluid buildup in a person’s chest so that breathing is easier, and it may be possible to undergo a procedure in which medicine is injected into the chest to prevent fluid buildup from recurring. Surgery can also be used to remove cancerous tissue from around the lungs, which can lessen the symptoms of mesothelioma. In most advanced cases, surgery can be performed to remove an affected lung and surrounding cancerous tissue to relieve the symptoms of pleural mesothelioma. This type of surgery can also be helpful for receiving additional radiation therapy to treat mesothelioma as well since the patient will be able to receive increased radiation without the doctor needing to worry about lung protection. Surgery can also be performed to remove cancerous peritoneal tissue.
- Chemotherapy: Depending upon the type of mesothelioma and its location, a healthcare provider may recommend chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells. Chemotherapy is used to treat many different types of cancer, and it is often used for mesothelioma patients who are not good candidates for surgery. In those cases, chemotherapy may be able to shrink the mesothelioma tumor or slow its growth. In other cases, chemotherapy may be used prior to a planned surgical procedure in order to make the surgery easier. When a person is diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, chemotherapy can be administered into the patient’s abdominal cavity.
- Radiation: Radiation is also a common treatment for mesothelioma. When a patient receives radiation therapy, she or he will experience “high-energy beams from sources such as X-rays and protons” that will target “a specific spot or spots on your body,” according to the Mayo Clinic. Radiation is also used following a surgical procedure to remove some of the mesotheliomas in order to kill additional cancer cells that remain. In some patients for whom the mesothelioma is especially advanced, radiation can be used to reduce the symptoms associated with the disease.
- Immunotherapy: There are also other types of treatments for malignant mesothelioma, but they may be used less commonly and in situations dependent upon the particular patient’s case. If a patient has been diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma and other kinds of treatments are not working, a healthcare provider may recommend immunotherapy. According to the Mayo Clinic, immunotherapy relies on a patient’s own immune system to fight back against cancer. Since cancer limits your body’s ability to fight, immunotherapy “works by interfering with that process” by which “your body’s disease-fighting immune system may not attack your cancer because the cancer cells produce proteins that blind the immune system cells.”
- Targeted therapy: Targeted therapy can also be used in some cases based on the DNA of your cancer, and this type of therapy involves the use of specific drugs. While targeted therapy is used more frequently to treat other types of cancers, it is used less often to treat mesothelioma. When other treatments are not working, patients may turn to types of alternative medicine.
In summary, malignant mesothelioma is a rare but deadly form of cancer that is often, but not always, linked to asbestos exposure. There are several different types of malignant mesothelioma, and this disease can have a variety of signs and symptoms. Different tools can be used to diagnose it, and various treatment options may be available, although treatments are rarely able to cure mesothelioma entirely.
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