What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that develops in the mesothelium, which is the protective membrane that surrounds many of the body’s internal organs.

Approximately 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in the United States every year, making it one of the less common types of cancer to affect Americans. Each year, roughly 2,500 individuals die from the disease. Treatment for mesothelioma is available, and between 5 percent and 10 percent of patients survive for five years or longer after their diagnosis.

Individuals who work with asbestos products or have worked with asbestos in the past are susceptible to developing mesothelioma. Smoking increases an individual’s risk of developing this disease.

Symptoms of Mesothelioma

Symptoms of mesothelioma can include the following:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Excessive sweating
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Back pain
  • Vomiting

As the disease progresses, patients may experience the following symptoms as well:

  • Difficult breathing
  • Coughing up blood
  • Bowel problems
  • Increased levels of fatigue

Types of Mesothelioma

Four types of mesothelioma are recognized by medical professionals: pericardial, peritoneal, testicular and pleural. Each type is defined by the part of the body affected by the cancer.

Pleural mesothelioma is the most common type of mesothelioma in the United States. With this type of mesothelioma, the patient’s pleura, the mesothelium around his or her lungs, is affected. Pleural mesothelioma occurs in patients who inhaled powdered asbestos fibers. This type of mesothelioma can be cured if it is caught in an early stage.

Peritoneal mesothelioma is the second-most common type of mesothelioma in the United States, affecting between 10 percent and 20 percent of patients. This type of mesothelioma manifests in the patient’s peritoneum, which is the mesothelium around his or her abdominal cavity. Generally, this type of mesothelioma occurs in patients who have swallowed asbestos fibers. This type of mesothelioma can spread very quickly, making it difficult to diagnose and treat.

Pericardial mesothelioma affects the pericardium, which is the mesothelium that surrounds the patient’s heart. This type of mesothelioma is rare, affecting approximately 1 percent of patients suffering from mesothelioma. Treating pericardial mesothelioma can be extremely difficult because of the tumor’s proximity to the patient’s heart. In this type of case, doctors often provide palliative care, rather than curative treatment, to their patients.

Testicular mesothelioma is the least common form of mesothelioma, affecting less than 1 percent of patients. With this type of mesothelioma, the cancer is in the patient’s tunica vaginalis, which is the mesothelium that lines the patient’s testes. This type of mesothelioma can be treated by removing the affected testicle and performing radiation surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells.

Mesothelioma Staging and Treatment

Mesothelioma affects patients in four stages. As the disease progresses, it becomes more difficult to treat. By the final stages, the patient can generally only receive palliative treatment, which is treatment meant to ease his or her pain rather than to cure the disease.

  • Stage 1. The first stage of mesothelioma is known as “localized mesothelioma.” In this stage, it only present in one area of the body, most commonly the pleura.
  • Stage 2. In the second stage, the mesothelioma spreads to other parts of the patient’s mesothelium. In most cases, it reaches the diaphragm, chest cavity and lungs at this point.
  • Stage 3. By stage 3, the cancer has reached far beyond its original point in the patient’s body. It may be present in the lymph nodes, the trachea and esophagus, the tissue between the patient’s ribs, or other parts of his or her body beyond the original diagnosis.
  • Stage 4. This is the final stage of mesothelioma. By stage 4, the cancer has spread to the patient’s spine, brain, thyroid, prostate or anywhere above his or her collarbone. Once mesothelioma reaches stage 4, it cannot be cured.

Mesothelioma can be treated through a variety of treatment methods, depending on the type of mesothelioma and its stage. For some patients, more than one treatment option is used.

Patients with lung or abdominal-based mesothelioma are often treated with surgery. The affected portion of the patient’s mesothelioma is removed and usually followed by radiation therapy to kill any remaining cancer cells.

Some patients respond well to chemotherapy, which is a drug-based treatment plan.

Radiation therapy may be used in conjunction with surgery or chemotherapy or performed on its own. This is usually the treatment method of choice for patients with existing tumors. It is used to slow their growth and prevent the cancer from spreading.

Mesothelioma and Asbestos Exposure

Mesothelioma is linked with prolonged exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a class of minerals categorized for their long, fibrous structure. It can enter the body through the skin or, more commonly, be inhaled in its powder form.

From the nineteenth to the second half of the twentieth century, asbestos was used in nearly every type of building material and household product that needed to be resistant to high temperatures. Because of its profitability, the dangers of working with asbestos were largely downplayed by manufacturers who worked with the mineral. It was not until the 1970s that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to ban its use in the manufacturing of new products.

For hundreds of thousands of Americans, the damage was already done. Mesothelioma has a latency period of up to fifty years, which means that decades can pass between an individual’s exposure to asbestos and his or her first symptoms of mesothelioma.

Filing an Asbestos Exposure Claim Against Your Employer

If you have developed mesothelioma following a career of being exposed to asbestos, you might be able to file a claim against the company that manufactured the asbestos-laden equipment. This manufacturer might or might not be your employer. Talk to an experienced employment attorney to determine the negligent party in your asbestos exposure case and whether you have grounds to file a claim against this party. If you were exposed to asbestos while serving in the United States military, you could be entitled to file a claim with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.