Malignant mesothelioma is a form of rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. The disease attacks the mesothelium, which is a thin double-layer membrane lining that surrounds the body’s internal organs such as the lungs, heart, chest and the abdomen. Mesothelioma that affects the chest is called pleural mesothelioma, while mesothelioma that affects the abdomen and the heart are called peritoneal mesothelioma and pericardial mesothelioma, respectively.
About 75% of mesothelioma cases have been found to start in the chest and lungs, making it the most common form of the disease, followed by 10 to 20% of cases of mesothelioma affecting the abdomen. A rare mesothelioma called the tunica vaginalis, or testicular, has also been diagnosed; it affects the reproductive organs of male patients.
Causes of Malignant Mesothelioma
Malignant mesothelioma is almost exclusively caused by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos particles that are swallowed or inhaled into the respiratory system of the patient can potentially cause aggravation and growth of cancerous cells on the membrane surface.
As many as 3,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma annually. These people may have been exposed to asbestos in their workforce as it was used extensively as an insulator and fire retardant. Those who are at a greater risk of asbestos exposure are:
- Drywall installers
- Sheet metal workers
- Chemical plant workers
- Power plant workers
- Auto mechanics
- Armed forces
Furthermore, asbestos fibers can get stuck in worker’s clothing and hair making their family at risk when they return home from work. Residential houses and schools also fell victim to the widespread use of asbestos. Many ceiling tiles, piping and other parts of the foundation were covered with asbestos. Once these fibers break free and become airborne they can become extremely toxic to those in the vicinity.
Symptoms of Malignant Mesothelioma
Normal symptoms and signs associated with mesothelioma are coughing, fatigue, pain in the chest wall, side, back or abdomen, weight loss, accumulation of fluid in the abdomen, shortness of breath and coughing up blood.
As these symptoms are similar to other ailments, they are often ignored initially until the condition becomes more serious. Typically, it takes between two to three months after symptoms are experienced before malignant mesothelioma is diagnosed.
Diagnosing Malignant Mesothelioma
Diagnosis of mesothelioma is performed using scanning and biopsy tests, which aim to identify the location of the cancer and the size of the tumor. Oftentimes imaging tests such as chest x-rays, CT scans, PET scans and MRI’s are used to diagnose the disease. Other methods often used to help diagnose the cancer include blood tests, tissue tests and fluid tests. A diagnosis will also determine whether the tumor is benign (not cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).
While benign tumors are completely resectable, if not surgically removed they have a tendency to become cancerous. Even once they are removed, a ten-year monitoring period after the operation is often recommended as a precautionary measure.
Types of Mesothelioma
There are three types of malignant tumors — Epithelial, which makes up 50 to 70% of malignant mesothelioma cases; Sarcomatoid, which makes up seven to 20% of malignant mesothelioma cases; and Mixed/Biphasic, which makes up 20 to 35% of malignant mesothelioma cases.
On the other hand, benign tumors such as an adenomatoid tumor, which grows in the reproductive organs of male and female patients and cystic tumors, which grow near the reproductive organs of only female patients are also common. However, they are not cancerous and can often be removed by surgery.
Stages of Mesothelioma
After identifying the tumor, the next stage is to determine the stage of the cancer. Three staging systems are used to determine whether the cancer has spread, the extent of the spread and whether they can be removed with surgery. These systems are called the Butchart System, the TNM System and the Brigham System.
Treating the Disease
The final phase is to establish the right form of treatment based on the tumor location and type, stage of cancer as well as the patient’s age, weight and general health condition. Normal treatments for malignant mesothelioma include chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Chemotherapy involves the use of drugs to destroy cancer cells; it can also be used to enhance the result of radiation treatment or destroy returning cancer cells. Radiation on the other hand is used to curb cancer cells from growing and spreading.
Some malignant mesothelioma can be treated with surgery. Pallitive surgery is an option to reduce pain or eliminate fluid buildup. Another option is the more complex curative surgery known as extrapleural pneumonectomy, which involves the intricate reconstruction of the affected mesothelium cells with prosthetics.
Malignant mesothelioma can be treated; treatment can reduce pain, curtail cancer growth and significantly improve the quality of patient’s lives and prolong lifespan. However, malignant mesothelioma cannot be cured entirely and can potentially relapse.