This blog article is written by Daniel King who is a content writer for The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com, an informational source for mesothelioma patients and families.
Mesothelioma is a relatively rare cancer that arises in the lining of the lung and gastrointestinal tract. In the US, there are approximately 3000 new cases of mesothelioma diagnosed each year.
As with all forms of cancer, malignant mesothelioma is easiest to treat when it is caught early. However, the unique nature of this rare and deadly disease means you must determine your own risk level and seek out specialized screening on your own initiative.
Mesothelioma is commonly caused by exposure to asbestos, a toxic mineral that was ubiquitous in industry and construction for much of the twentieth century. When the cancer is localized in its early stages it is amenable to potentially curative surgery.
As the disease generally is not symptomatic until it is in more advanced stages, treatment options at this point become more limited and patients and their physicians must focus upon improving the patient’s quality of life.
The Stages of Mesothelioma
Three-quarters of mesothelioma cases develop on the protective lining of the lungs, called pleural mesothelioma. When asbestos dust is inhaled, tiny mineral fibers can become lodged in the lining of the lungs, eventually causing cancer to develop years, even decades later. The second most common form which develops in the lining of the abdomen is called peritoneal mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma stages range from 1 to 4, depending on the tumor size and location and how much the cancer has spread throughout the body. For each stage, there is a median life expectancy, which means historically half of patients lived longer than this time frame and half lived shorter.
Stage 1: The cancer forms in a single location and usually causes no symptoms at the outset. The median life expectancy when a patient is diagnosed in this first stage is 21 months, but aggressive surgery to remove as much of the tumor growth as possible, followed by chemotherapy and radiation, can extend a patient’s life expectancy by many years.
Stage 2: The cancer begins to spread from its original location to the surrounding tissues. For pleural mesothelioma, symptoms typically include some chest pain and difficulty breathing, but because they are so vague and mild, the cancer is easily mistaken for a common illness like the flu. Median life expectancy is 19 months, and curative surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments offer strong hope for life extension.
Stage 3: The cancer spreads to several other organs and tissues surrounding the original location. Pleural mesothelioma causes chest pain and difficulty breathing, while peritoneal mesothelioma will involve abdominal pain and digestive problems. Discomfort may also be felt wherever else the cancer has spread. Median life expectancy is 16 months.
In rare cases, aggressive treatments may still be an option, but usually by this stage doctors begin to recommend palliative treatments instead. Palliative treatments are primarily meant to ease a patient’s symptoms rather than extend their life.
Stage 4: The cancer metastasizes, resulting in new tumors at distant sites throughout the body. Symptoms include severe pain, difficulty breathing and swallowing, digestive problems and muscle weakness. Depending on each patient's performance status (physical well-being) chemotherapy, usually consisting of Cisplatin plus Pemetrexed or other combinations can be considered to alleviate symptoms and prolong life.
Detecting Mesothelioma Early
Too often, mesothelioma is not diagnosed until it has already reached stage 3 or 4.
By the end stages, it is usually too late for most conventional treatments, but clinical trials of emerging technologies such as immunotherapy and gene therapy still offer hope.
The key to early detection is knowing your own risk level.
If you have ever worked in a profession with a high chance of asbestos exposure — such as construction, firefighting or military service — make sure you are regularly screened by medical professionals familiar with asbestos-related illnesses. Take advantage of all the resources available online, and be proactive in protecting your well-being.
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