An Overview of Mesothelioma & its Treatment
Mesothelioma – it’s an ugly word for an ugly condition. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer, with about 3,000 cases a year reported in the U.S. Although the most common form of mesothelioma, pleural mesothelioma, affects the membranes surrounding the lungs, this type of cancer is very different from lung cancer. It is a much rarer and usually far more deadly form of cancer than lung cancer. Also, it is unrelated to smoking; it is caused by exposure to asbestos dust and fibers.
Asbestos, a mineral that was widely used throughout most of the 1900s in nearly every industry, forms long fibers that can be woven or mixed into materials. When asbestos is broken or crushed, the resulting dust and fibers hang in the air and land on surfaces nearby. People who breathe in or swallow asbestos dust are at risk for developing mesothelioma.
How asbestos causes mesothelioma
When asbestos dust is breathed in or swallowed, some of the microscopic particles lodge in the lungs, throat, esophagus, pleural linings and stomach linings in the body. The tiny fibers sit there for twenty to forty years, damaging the cells and causing scarring and inflammation, but the worst damage isn’t immediately apparent. Decades later, the cancer attacks the cells of the mesothelium, a thin lining that encases the heart and lungs. The symptoms of mesothelioma are a result of a buildup of fluid in the area between the mesothelium and the lungs.
The Types of Mesothelioma
There are three types of mesothelioma, classified by where the cancer begins.
Pleural mesothelioma begins in the lining around the lungs. It usually begins in the outer membrane of one lung, and may progress to involving both lungs and other organs. The symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include a dry cough, chest pain and pleural effusion. Pleural effusion is the collection of fluid between the tissue covering the chest wall and the diaphragm and the tissue covering the lungs. Normally, there is a small amount of fluid in that area to make it easy for your lungs to move when breathing. In a person with mesothelioma, the cells that usually absorb the excess fluid don’t work right, and the fluid builds up, causing pain, coughing and difficulty breathing.
Peritoneal mesothelioma involves the lining of the abdominal and pelvic cavities, called the peritoneum. In about 10% of mesothelioma cases, swallowed asbestos fibers cause changes to develop in the peritoneum. The symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include swollen and painful abdomen, high temperature, bowel problems, problems with urination, nausea and vomiting.
Pericardial mesothelioma affects the pericardium – the thin tissue lining around the heart. It’s the rarest of the types of mesothelioma, accounting for less than 1% of reported cases. The symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath, persistent coughing and palpitations.
Later-stage symptoms of all types of mesothelioma include sudden weight loss without any other explanation, spitting up blood and sputum, problems swallowing, and hoarseness.
Risk factors for mesothelioma
Mesothelioma is seen almost exclusively in people who have been exposed to asbestos; according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), 70 to 80 percent of all cases of malignant mesothelioma are directly linked to working with asbestos. Family members of those who worked with asbestos have also developed mesothelioma, most likely from inhaling asbestos dust and fibers brought home on workers’ clothes and hair. While the exposure usually took place over the course of several years, there have been cases where mesothelioma developed after just a short exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma cancer can show up anywhere from about 15 to more than 50 years after exposure to asbestos. Most often, it shows up 30 to 50 years after exposure, so it is seldom seen in young people.
Anyone who worked in an industry where asbestos was routinely used is at greater risk for mesothelioma than the general public. You may remember the death of noted actor Steve McQueen over 25 years ago. At the time, his cause of death was widely reported as being lung cancer. It wasn’t. McQueen reportedly was exposed to asbestos when he stripped it off pipes on U.S. Navy ships, and he died from mesothelioma only a year after diagnosis. Like McQueen, an estimated one-third of those who have developed mesothelioma worked in naval shipyards.
How Mesothelioma Is Diagnosed
Because the symptoms of mesothelioma are similar to the symptoms of many other lung diseases (including lung cancer), diagnosing mesothelioma can be difficult. So, it is very important to tell your doctor if you are experiencing symptoms and have ever been exposed to asbestos. Usually the doctor will use several methods to pinpoint the disease.
- Medical history is important, since the single highest risk factor for mesothelioma is a previous exposure to asbestos.
- Physical examination may include chest or abdominal X-rays to look for pleural scarring consistent with asbestos exposure
- While there is not yet a blood test that diagnoses mesothelioma, blood tests can rule out other causes for symptoms.
- Examining the fluid in the pleural cavity
- Biopsy and tissue samples
Treatments for Mesothelioma
Like most cancers, the treatment options for mesothelioma vary depending on the stage of the disease and the patient’s overall health. They include chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. Mesothelioma is incurable. The goal of treatment is to prolong life and improve the quality of life by treating the symptoms.
- Pleurectomy – surgery to remove the tumor and the surrounding tissue. It may involve removing a small section of the lung, an entire lobe or even the entire lung.
- Phototherapy – a newer treatment for cancer in general and mesothelioma in particular. Cancer cells are stained with a radioactive dye that makes them more susceptible to light, then targeted with a low-intensity laser to kill them.
- Pleurodesis – a special absorptive powder is inserted into the pleural cavity to absorb excess fluid and make it easier to breathe without pain.
- Peritoneal surgery – used when the tumors are in the peritoneum or abdomen. The goal is to remove small tumors and make the patient more comfortable.
- Chemotherapy – giving drugs that kill or slow the growth of cancer-causing cells.
- Radiotherapy – the use of X-rays to kill cancer cells in tumors with radiation.
Prognosis for Mesothelioma
If you or someone you love has mesothelioma, you should seek out health care providers who specialize in the disease. The prognosis for people diagnosed with mesothelioma is bleak, but there are promising new treatments on the horizon. Unfortunately, care and treatment for a person with mesothelioma is expensive, and many insurance companies won’t cover people who have a history of asbestos exposure. If your doctor believes that you might have mesothelioma, a consultation with an experienced mesothelioma attorney can help determine whether you’re entitled to benefits and damages resulting from your exposure to asbestos.
At Williams Kherkher, our experienced and compassionate mesothelioma lawyers want to help you and your family fight for your rights. We work with experts in the field to try to track down the source of exposure and determine potential liability. We work with expert witnesses to help explain the cause of this complex disease and the suffering of its victims in terms a jury can easily understand.
Our law firm has helped hundreds of clients suffering from mesothelioma and their families. Contact us today to find out if an asbestos lawsuit is appropriate in your case.