Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer. It is caused by asbestos and forms on the protective tissues covering the lungs, abdomen and heart. Symptoms include coughing, chest pain and shortness of breath. Treatments combining surgery, radiation and chemotherapy improve survival and life expectancy.
The American Cancer Society records about 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma each year in the U.S.
It’s a disease that mostly affects people who worked with asbestos and products containing asbestos.
While there are treatments that control tumor growth, researchers have not found a definitive cure for the cancer.
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
The cancer develops when a person ingests asbestos, and it causes changes to a person’s DNA.
Our genes, which are made of DNA, control how cells grow, multiply and die. Changes in our genes may cause cells to divide out of control and may lead to cancer.
Development of Mesothelioma
- A person inhales or swallows airborne asbestos fibers.
- The asbestos fibers become lodged in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart.
- The embedded fibers damage the mesothelial cells and cause inflammation.
- Over time, tumors begin to form on the damaged mesothelium, which is the lining of the abdomen, lung, heart and testes.
Tumors also can be benign (noncancerous). But when tumors are cancerous, doctors call the disease malignant mesothelioma. It is often shortened to mesothelioma.
Common mesothelioma symptoms include:Symptoms
- Dry coughing
- Shortness of breath
- Respiratory complications
- Pain in the chest or abdomen
- Fever or night sweats
- Pleural effusion (fluid around the lungs)
- Weakness in the muscles
These mesothelioma symptoms usually do not show until tumors have grown and spread. Mesothelioma latency is 20-50 years. That’s how long it takes from initial exposure to accurate diagnosis. For that reason, many people with mesothelioma are in their 60s or 70s.
You should talk to a mesothelioma specialist soon if you have a history of asbestos exposure and experience these symptoms. An early diagnosis may improve your prognosis and life expectancy.
Asbestos use in the military was widespread from 1940 to 1980. Veterans from all branches of the U.S. armed forces were at risk of exposure. Navy veterans are most at risk. This branch used the largest quantity of asbestos products.
More than 75 occupations have exposed workers to asbestos. Auto mechanics, textile workers, steel mill workers, construction workers and firefighters are among the most at risk.
Asbestos workers unknowingly carried asbestos fibers on their body and clothing. This resulted in secondary asbestos exposure among residents such as women and children.
Types of Mesothelioma
Oncologists name each type of mesothelioma by the location in the body where it develops.
The pleural and peritoneal types of mesothelioma are the most common. Pericardial accounts for 1 percent of cases. Another rare type is testicular mesothelioma. It represents less than 1 percent of all mesotheliomas.
Prognosis, symptoms and treatment options vary by type.
- Most common type
- Forms on soft tissue covering the lungs
- Best treated with a multimodal approach
- Less than 20 percent of all cases
- Develops on lining surrounding the abdomen
- Responds best to a combination of surgery and heated chemotherapy
- Second-rarest type
- Forms on soft tissue around the heart
- Best treated with a multimodal approach
- Rarest type
- Develops on the lining of the testicles
- Responds best to surgery
Younger patients and women have a better mesothelioma prognosis than older men. People diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma also have a higher chance of survival.
Patients eligible to undergo multimodal therapy, which is a combination of two or more standard-of-care treatments, have a better life expectancy and improved prognosis.
A patient’s mesothelioma cell type also plays a significant role in prognosis and life expectancy.
The three types of cells include:
- These cells are the most responsive to treatment, which improves prognosis and life expectancy. They comprise 50 percent of mesothelioma diagnoses.
- These cells are the least responsive to treatment. Patients with this cell type have a poorer prognosis and shorter life expectancy. These cells comprise 10 percent of diagnoses.
- A combination of epithelioid and sarcomatoid cells. This type is less responsive to treatment. But prognosis and life expectancy depends on the ratio of both types of cells. This type accounts for 30-40 percent of diagnoses.
The cancer is localized. Surgery is most effective at this stage. Survival rate is higher. Median life expectancy at stage 1 is 22.2 months.
Tumors have started to spread from the original location into adjacent structures. Surgery is still an option. Median life expectancy at stage 2 is 20 months.
Cancer has progressed to a more advanced stage with spread into the regional lymph nodes. Surgery may still be an option. Median life expectancy at stage 3 is 17.9 months
Cancer has spread extensively in the area where it developed. Chemotherapy and immunotherapy control symptoms and prolong survival. Median life expectancy at stage 4 is 14.9 months or less.
Importance of Finding a Mesothelioma Specialist
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer. It represents only 0.3 percent of all cancer diagnoses. Most doctors and oncologists have never encountered it.
A 2009 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine states that cancer care “requires the technical knowledge and skills of specialty physicians such as medical oncologists, surgeons and radiation oncologists.”
Specialty cancer doctors establish:
- Goals for treatment and prognosis
- Possible use of chemotherapy
- First type of treatment
- Possible participation in clinical trials
These are factors that impact a mesothelioma patient’s survival. That’s why finding a mesothelioma specialist is so important.
Finding a mesothelioma specialty center with experienced mesothelioma doctors is crucial to survival.
Mesothelioma treatment helps patients live longer lives. But not every patient is eligible for each type of mesothelioma treatment.
The most common treatments for mesothelioma include:
- Offers greatest chance of survival. Usually used for diagnosis, tumor removal or palliative care to reduce pain. Patients with strong health and limited cancer spread are good candidates.
- More than 70 percent of patients undergo chemotherapy. It uses powerful drugs to shrink tumors and kill cancer cells.
- Radiation Therapy
- Used to reduce pain from growing tumors. When combined with surgery and chemotherapy, it reduces risk of local recurrence. It can be used at any cancer stage.
- This experimental treatment boosts the immune system to fight the cancer. Primarily used in clinical trials.
- Multimodal Therapy
- A combination of two or more treatments. Clinical studies show this approach improves survival rates.
- A multimodal treatment for peritoneal mesothelioma patients. Surgery is first used to remove as many tumors as possible. Heated chemotherapy is then applied to the abdominal cavity to destroy remaining cancer cells.
- Palliative Treatments
- May include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or HIPEC. The purpose is not curative care. Instead, the goal is to reduce pain and improve quality of life. Good for any mesothelioma patient.
Clinical trials offer mesothelioma patients access to experimental therapies. They also provide scientific and medical information for researches to develop new treatments. Patients in clinical trials also receive excellent medical care.
Herbal medicines, mind-body therapies, holistic healing and other complementary therapies may benefit patients.