What Is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma develops slowly but then spreads quickly. Effective treatment of this disease depends on early screening and highly specialized care.
The cancer is rare and is usually caused by asbestos exposure. It is often misdiagnosed because of its rarity, long latency period and seemingly innocuous early symptoms.
There is currently no cure, and treatments aim to increase life expectancy and relieve symptoms. The key to living a longer, more comfortable life after diagnosis is to seek specialized medical care. Professional caregivers and lawyers familiar with occupational asbestos-exposure lawsuits can also provide vital support.
Types of Mesothelioma
In 75 percent of cases, mesothelioma develops in the lining of the lungs because asbestos fibers from construction materials or other asbestos-containing products were inhaled. The cancer may also develop in the lining of the abdomen if asbestos is swallowed, which accounts for 20 percent of cases.
Once inhaled or ingested, asbestos remains in the body for years, causing scarring, inflammation and eventually genetic damage to cells, which then develop into cancer.
Other types of mesothelioma affect the lining of the heart and the testicles. Mesothelioma is nearly always a malignant cancer, spreading rapidly to other areas of the body after it develops.
Difficulty of Diagnosis
Most doctors and even most oncologists are unfamiliar with mesothelioma because it is much less common than other cancers. Each year, between 2,000 and 3,000 mesothelioma cases are diagnosed in the United States, compared to upwards of 200,000 lung cancer cases. Mesothelioma nearly always affects people late in life, decades after their exposure to asbestos.
The disease’s initial symptoms are easily mistaken for the effects of a common cough or general aches and pains. If a person with a history of asbestos exposure is not screened for mesothelioma, it is likely the cancer will not be diagnosed until it has reached a late stage.
Symptoms and Prognosis
Respiratory symptoms include chronic coughing, shortness of breath (dyspnea), difficulty breathing and fluid buildup around the lungs (pleural effusions). Other common symptoms are chest and abdominal pain, fever, anemia, muscle weakness and weight loss.
Life expectancy after diagnosis depends on the stage of the cancer and many other factors, but on average, about 40 percent survive one year and 20 percent more than two years. Catching the cancer in its early stages through screening for asbestos-related illness can improve the prognosis.
Doctors conduct treatments for mesothelioma to extend patients’ lives and ease their symptoms to improve their quality of life. Conventional treatments include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. In some cases, doctors employ a combination of all three as multimodal therapy.
Experimental treatments may also be available through clinical trials conducted by cancer centers. Because mesothelioma is so rare, any treatment’s success depends heavily on the specialization and experience of the medical professionals serving the patient.
Support for Patients
As symptoms increase in severity, activities of daily living may become impossible for patients, especially since mesothelioma predominantly affects seniors. Professional caregivers can relieve the burden on family members and improve a patient’s quality of life by providing physical and emotional support throughout treatment.
Many mesothelioma patients are eligible for financial resources. Historically, the vast majority of asbestos exposure has occurred in the workplace. Patients who suffer from occupational asbestos exposure, as well as their surviving family members, may be entitled to compensation through special trust funds and litigation.