Though mesothelioma is a fairly rare cancer, several thousands of Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer each year - a rate that is expected to grow before it subsides. Mesothelioma is a cancer that develops in the mesothelium almost always as a result of exposure to asbestos.
- What is the mesothelium? The mesothelium is a layer of protective tissue that surrounds a majority of the organs in the human body. When we talk about the pleurae that surround our lungs, for example, we are talking about mesothelium. The mesothelium is composed of two layers of tissue - one that tightly hugs the organ, and the other that encases (between it and the inner layer) a lubricant, which is created by the mesothelium. You may have wondered why you feel little discomfort with all of those sensitive organs rubbing and bumping in your body. Thank your mesothelium.
- Who is at risk? Statistically, mesothelioma has appeared more in older men than women, but that has nothing to do with any preference for older men. Men traditionally have been exposed to more asbestos through occupation. That occupational history, coupled with the fact that the disease doesn't necessarily present itself symptomatically until as many as fifty years from exposure, accounts for the predominance of older, male mesothelioma patients.
Those most at risk are people who have been directly exposed to asbestos. However, studies suggest that loved ones might also be at risk of developing mesothelioma as a result of the trace amounts of asbestos that linger on the body and clothing of someone directly exposed to asbestos. Mesothelioma can appear in those with no knowledge of any asbestos exposure.
Exposure to asbestos can bring about the ingestion or inhalation of particulate asbestos matter. Whether swallowed or inhaled, asbestos enters the mesothelium, where the resultant cell damage leads to mesothelioma. Even barring the development of mesothelioma, asbestos can lead to lung and other forms of cancer, as well as asbestosis, wherein scar tissue gradually replaces the delicate lung tissue.
- Symptoms of mesothelioma. The symptoms of this form of cancer often bear an unfortunate resemblance to symptoms of more common ailments and do not surface until advanced stages of the cancer. Due to the difficulty of accurate and timely diagnosis, the average life expectancy after diagnosis is little more than a year. Symptoms also will vary depending upon the location of the afflicted mesothelium in the body. The majority of mesothelioma cases begin in the chest (pleural mesothelioma) and abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma).
- Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include shortness of breath, a cough, and chest pain caused by pleural effusion (accumulation of fluid in the pleura).
- Peritoneal mesothelioma presents itself differently. Symptoms include pain in the abdomen, loss of weight, and abdominal swelling (again due to accumulation of fluid, this time in the abdomen).
- Mesothelioma diagnosis. Your doctor will arrive at a diagnosis by studying your history (medical, occupational and residential), performing a physical examination and conducting diagnostic work like a CT scan or MRI. In order to prove the presence of mesothelioma, a biopsy will be performed to remove a small sample of the endangered mesothelium for further diagnostic procedures.
- Treatment of mesothelioma. As stated earlier, prognosis has traditionally been grim, due to the fact that the cancer often goes undetected until it has reached a critical stage in a generally older patient population. Course of treatment depends on the location of the mesothelioma, the age and health of the patient, and whether or not the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Traditional treatment options include the following.
- Surgical removal of cancerous tissue (often including the removal of a lung or removal of mesothelial tissue and neighboring tissue).
- Chemotherapy - intravenous or intracavitary (wherein the chemotherapy is administered directly at the scene of the mesothelioma).
- Radiation therapy - external (radiation emitted by a machine) or internal (radiation emitted by a device inserted into your body at the scene of the mesothelioma).
- The medical community is engaged in a continual effort to develop more successful treatment plans for patients who suffer from mesothelioma. Resulting clinical trials offer mesothelioma patients an opportunity to participate in promising new treatment methods. It must be noted, however, that the safety and efficacy of these clinical trial treatments are uncertain.
As outlook and treatment are affected by the stage at which mesothelioma is diagnosed, be vigilant in seeking medical attention early and throughout your life. If you have a history of asbestos exposure, see your doctor and convey your experiences. If you are diagnosed with mesothelioma, maintain a positive outlook, buoyed by the support of the medical community and of other mesothelioma patients, and by the knowledge that others have survived mesothelioma.