Mesothelioma is a rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
The disease forms on the mesothelium — a protective lining that covers the lungs, abdomen, heart and testes.
Tumors can be benign (noncancerous). But when tumors are cancerous, doctors call the disease malignant mesothelioma. It is often shortened to mesothelioma.
Asbestos remains the primary cause of mesothelioma.
The cancer develops when a person ingests asbestos, and it causes changes to a person’s DNA. Our genes are made of DNA. Some of the genes in our body 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.
Common mesothelioma symptoms include:
Shortness of breath
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.
Who Is Most at Risk of Mesothelioma?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.