Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that is caused almost entirely by an exposure to asbestos. Because of this, it is also known as asbestos cancer. This type of cancer is one of the deadliest, with a low survivability rate for those who get the prognosis- anywhere from four to eighteen months- and often the symptoms are difficult to catch early, or confused with a different respiratory illness.
Thankfully, it is a rarer type of cancer, and it affects an average of 3,000 people in the United States each year. Because of its rarity, not many people are aware of this deadly cancer and how it can kill. Some people may not even know how to pronounce it.
Here are some things you need to know about mesothelioma.
What is mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is the cancer of mesothelium, which is a thin membrane in the body that covers and protects the internal organs. Once that membrane is irritated and inflamed by asbestos fibers or other foreign objects, it can make the body vulnerable to illness. Mesothelioma is one of the most vicious forms of cancer. It also has a very high latency period: it can take anywhere between 15 to 75 years for symptoms that can be definitely diagnosed to appear.
There are three different types of mesothelioma, with different areas in the body that they target.
- Pleural Mesothelioma – Perhaps the most common type, accounting for 75% of cases in the United States. This cancer develops in the lining around the lungs.
- Peritoneal Mesothelioma – This type develops on the lining of the abdomen.
- Pericardial Mesothelioma – This type of cancer, finally, develops around the lining of the heart.
How can you get mesothelioma?
The leading cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a naturally occurring material that was popular in manufacturing and construction in the United States in the 70s to the 90s. Because of its durability, it was used virtually everywhere, from coffee makers to insulation. Its prevalence makes it extremely easy to become exposed to asbestos at some point.
The material itself is made of six different fibers, all naturally occurring mineral fibers. These fibers can separate incredibly easily. After some time, asbestos will pull apart into flexible, smaller fibers, invisible to the naked eye. These invisible fibres are not a material that human bodies are built to process, so they linger in the body, mostly in the lungs. Because the body cannot expel the fibers, it stays in the system and can cause inflammation and harmful changes in genetics that can cause a person to develop health complications or cancer.
How does mesothelioma affect your body?
Mesothelioma is similar to other cancers in that it starts from mutations in the cells. Once the asbestos fibres cause inflammation, those mutations begin and can form a mutation in cell growth, creating a mass or a tumor. This type of tumor growth can happen anywhere in the body, and is not limited to the lungs. The heart, stomach, and various internal organs are also at risk
While research has not yet proven what exactly causes mesothelioma, the most common risk factors have been determined. Asbestos is the number one link to developing this deadly cancer.
What are the most common mesothelioma symptoms?
Often, mesothelioma symptoms do not appear until the cancer is in its later stages. In the worst cases, you may not start seeing symptoms until more than twenty years later, or even more. The symptoms are varied and can often be confused for those of other respiratory diseases.
Common symptoms of mesothelioma include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Abdominal bloating
- Abnormal lumps
- Weight loss
- Pain when coughing, and coughing of blood
You should see your doctor if you feel you have been exposed to asbestos in a closed environment, if you have been previously diagnosed with recurring pneumonia, and if you experience the symptoms mentioned above.
How is mesothelioma diagnosed?
A mesothelioma diagnosis starts with a physical exam. Your physician will note your medical history and check your body for any odd lumps, and schedule you for a CT scan or a chest x-ray. That x-ray or CT scan should reveal and fluid build up in the lungs or chest, which is called pleural effusion. This pleural effusion will be drained with a procedure that involves an ultrasound-guided needle. This procedure, however, will not confirm or deny a mesothelioma diagnosis, and is only to relieve the build up of fluid in the lungs or chest.
Next, your physician will recommend you for a biopsy. You will need to be put under local anesthesia, and after a needle aspiration, a small camera can be introduced between the lung and chest wall. From there, tissue samples will be collected, and here you can get the definitive answer whether or not you have mesothelioma, and what kind of mesothelioma you may have.
Once the doctor confirms that you have mesothelioma, more tests will be performed so your doctor can find out which stage the cancer has progressed to. You may need to undergo another chest CT, and a PET scan or a positron-emission tomography scan is also recommended to see if any other areas in your body have been affected by the cancer. Additionally, your doctor may schedule you for more biopsies if the cancer has already spread to other parts of your body.
How can you manage mesothelioma?
While undergoing treatment, you may experience some discomfort or new bodily pains you are unfamiliar with. There are steps to manage this, and to help ease yourself through the process of treatment and living with mesothelioma.
If you continue to experience chest pain from fluid build up in your lungs, there are options for helping you alleviate it. Pain management for fluid build up can start by seeing a physiotherapist who can recommend you medication taken orally or taken intravenously, as well as showing you how to move in your daily life to prevent pain. Mesothelioma pain management medication may have side effects like fatigue and an interrupted sleep schedule, so it’s important to see your doctor for help with the discomfort you may experience.
Another way to help yourself through the pain is to consider palliative care to help control your symptoms. Specially trained physicians can help you minimize the emotional effects of dealing with your illness, as well help you focus on your needs, and not your prognosis. Ideally, palliative care should be a part of your plan once you receive a mesothelioma diagnosis.
One more thing you need to know about mesothelioma is that it is not a death sentence. While the odds are definitely uneven, people are able to survive mesothelioma and a grim diagnosis and live their lives unimpeded by the disease.
There are plenty of people sharing their stories and coping mechanisms with the illness online. Start connecting with them and learn more at https://survivingmesothelioma.com/mesothelioma/.