What is Mesothelioma?
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Malignant mesothelioma is a rare, asbestos-related cancer that forms on the thin protective tissues that cover the lungs and abdomen. A combined approach to treatment is helping people improve their survival and ease symptoms.
Did you know that doctors diagnose an estimated 3,000 cases of mesothelioma annually in the U.S.? The majority of those are traced to job-related exposures to asbestos. Most people have the pleural type, which forms on the lining of the lungs, but the cancer can also form around the lining of the abdomen or heart.
Although asbestos use in this country has dropped in recent decades, a steady number of people are still getting mesothelioma. That's because this cancer can take anywhere from 20 to 50 years after asbestos exposure before symptoms appear, and an oncologist can make a definitive diagnosis.
While there's no cure for mesothelioma and the outlook is generally poor, researchers have made significant progress in understanding the cancer and developing new treatment options and alternative therapies.
Mesothelioma typically develops after people are exposed to asbestos in the workplace – in industrial settings, shipyards, auto repair shops, old houses, schools and public buildings. While it usually takes long-term exposure to put someone at risk, short-term and one-time exposures are also known to cause this cancer.
Fast Fact: 70-80 percent of people with mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos at work.
Asbestos can cause health complications when work duties or other activities disturb asbestos-containing materials and release fibers into the air. When we inhale or swallow these microscopic fibers, our bodies struggle to get rid of them. Over decades, the trapped fibers trigger biological changes that can cause inflammation, scarring and genetic damage that sometimes leads to cancer. The lengthy gap between asbestos exposure and diagnosis is called the latency period.
Asbestos fibers most often become trapped in the lining of the lungs, called the pleura. They also can collect in the lining of the abdominal cavity (peritoneum) or heart (pericardium). Once fibers cause biological damage, the stage is set for the decades-long latency period for the development of malignant mesothelioma.
Although several factors help determine your prognosis, or survival outlook, it is most affected by the stage of your cancer. Your doctors will perform tests to determine your cancer stage, typically a number I-IV that describes the seriousness of your diagnosis. Your cancer stage helps doctors determine the treatment options likely to work best for you.
Pleural mesothelioma is the most common type of the disease, representing about 75 percent of all diagnoses. Peritoneal is the second most common type, accounting for 10 to 20 percent of diagnoses. Approximately 1 percent of cases are of the pericardial variety. Another rare type known as testicular mesothelioma represents less than 1 percent of all mesotheliomas.
It forms on the lining of the lungs, and current studies are leading to improved treatment and survival rates.
It affects the lining of the abdominal cavity and responds best to a combination of surgery and heated chemotherapy.
Emerging from the lining of the heart, it's the most challenging to treat because of the sensitive location.
Mesothelioma symptoms can be so mild that few people notice or recognize them, and many don't experience any of them until later stages of the cancer. Fatigue and slight pain around the tumor may surface in early stages. Late-stage symptoms are more noticeable and commonly provoke people to visit the doctor.
These late-onset signs can include shortness of breath, chronic pain near the tumor, weight loss, fluid buildup or bowel obstruction. Effective therapies can relieve symptoms, and some treatments, like talc pleurodesis, can even prevent symptom recurrence.
Doctors use several tests to diagnose malignant mesothelioma. Everyone has a unique path to a diagnosis, but the most important tests needed for an accurate diagnosis are imaging scans and biopsies. Doctors use several tests to diagnose malignant mesothelioma.
Most people initially undergo a basic chest X-ray to check for any abnormalities. If an abnormal growth is detected, doctors will recommend a more detailed imaging scan such as a PET scan, CT scan or MRI.
If cancer is suspected, doctors will recommend taking a sample of tissue, also knowns as a biopsy. Doctors use this tissue sample to definitively confirm the presence of mesothelioma cells.
Blood tests are also available, but they do not confirm the presence of mesothelioma. Research and development is underway to determine if blood tests can aid in early diagnosis for at-risk former asbestos workers.
There are at least five staging systems doctors use to stage pleural mesothelioma. The most widely used is the IMIG staging system. There are currently no universal staging systems for the cancer's other types.
Despite the often poor prognosis associated with malignant mesothelioma, there are a number of encouraging stories of success – accounts of people who live to celebrate special days with spouses, kids and grandkids. Each survivor has a unique tale to tell.
"We needed the right information so that we could be prepared, so we could understand what we would be going through, what we needed to do."
"We're very fortunate to know the Veterans Department and the whole team at Asbestos.com. We were in dire straits, and they gave us hope."
"So much support made me realize I wasn't alone in this fight. This is a path you don't want to try and walk alone. You have to let others into your life."
"I can't do everything I once could, but I'm still out there getting around. I was fortunate in the care I received. And I don't mind sharing my good fortune."
"When you are diagnosed, don't listen to the doom and gloom. Fight with all your might. Don't worry if you feel selfish, as you are important."
"I don't dwell on this disease. I try to forget what I have. It just taps me on the shoulder and lets me know when I climb stairs, or walk too fast and get out of breath."
The leading treatment options for mesothelioma include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Many specialists prefer to combine two or more of these treatments, an approach known as multimodal therapy. Clinical trials show this approach has improved survival rates.
Palliative treatments that ease symptoms are quite common for patients of all stages, and experimental therapies like immunotherapy show progress for the future. Additionally, many survivors tout less-traditional alternative treatments for helping them to live longer.
Curative surgery is available for people with early stage mesothelioma, while palliative surgery is best for easing the symptoms of those diagnosed at a later stage.
Chemotherapy is a standard treatment to kill cancer cells, shrink tumors, prevent recurrence and relieve symptoms.
Radiation therapy is used alone or in combination with chemotherapy or surgery to kill cancer cells, manage tumors and prevent cancer from spreading along the path of a biopsy incision.
Mesothelioma specialists encompass a number of specialties, including surgery, medical and radiation oncology, radiology, pathology and palliative care. All can be part of a patient's treatment plan. Working with an experienced mesothelioma doctor can make all the difference.Get Help Finding a Specialist
The most-regarded treatment centers attract people from across the country. Renowned for their cutting-edge technology and groundbreaking research, these centers can connect you with a multidisciplinary team of physicians with years of experience in treating asbestos-related diseases.Get Help Finding a Cancer Center
Funding for mesothelioma research falls far short of that for other cancers, but new drugs and treatment options emerge from important clinical trials. These experimental studies are small and controlled opportunities for scientists to develop effective drugs like cisplatin and carboplatin.Get Help Finding a Clinical Trial
Treatment is expensive, and insurance companies may not cover the cost of diagnostic tests or experimental therapies. People without medical insurance will face an even harder battle. If you or a loved one is diagnosed, consider taking steps to protect your finances.
Financial expert and Patient Advocate Manager Joe Lahav knows the ins and outs of all the financial aid options available to you, including mesothelioma trust funds and grants to cover travel, treatment, housing and other expenses. Let him review your information and determine if you qualify for free financial assistance.
Many people with mesothelioma seek legal help to recoup medical expenses and secure a financial future for their families. Mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are entirely preventable, but the companies that mined, manufactured and sold asbestos products put profits before the health of customers and their own employees. Our legal system ensures these companies are held accountable for their negligence.
Fast Fact: A 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office reported that $36.8 billion remained in asbestos trusts. This money was set aside to help compensate victims of asbestos exposure and their families.
People who were injured by asbestos can seek legal help through an established asbestos trust fund or by filing a lawsuit against the companies responsible for their asbestos exposure. Trust fund benefits, winning legal claims or out of court settlements can help you and your family cover treatment, lost wages and other expenses.
Manufacturers that used asbestos could have prevented their workers and others from getting exposed to the deadly mineral. Filing a lawsuit can ensure they are held financially responsible for their negligence.
The outcome of an asbestos-related lawsuit can vary because each case comes with its own set of facts, but juries have returned with verdicts of $337 million (for Alfred Todak), $30.3 million (for Susan Buttitta) and $22 million (for Eugene McCarthy and Walter Koczur).
Most asbestos-related lawsuits are settled out of court — before they to go trial. A paper trail of occupational exposure can lead defendants to settle out of court to avoid lawsuit expenses as soon as possible. Settlements can range from moderate to large sums.
Because asbestos use in the military was so rampant from 1940 to 1980, veterans from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces who served during those years are now at high risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions. Job duties known for high rates of harmful exposures include pipefitting, mechanical work, equipment maintenance and shipyard work.
If you or a loved one was injured by asbestos exposure in the military, U.S. Army Capt. Aaron Munz can help you navigate the VA claims process and get the benefits you deserve. Munz, who joined The Mesothelioma Center as Veterans Department Director in 2015, is a decorated veteran who served nine years in combat and earned the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He understands the challenges veterans face when diagnosed with mesothelioma, and can answer any questions about the disease and the complicated filing process for VA claims.
Every cancer diagnosis comes with a wide range of physical and emotional challenges, and it's not just patients who are affected. Sometimes family members and loved ones need support too. We can get you free resources to help you move forward, whether you're a new caregiver or a concerned spouse or family member.
Request a comprehensive mesothelioma guide to gain a deeper understanding of the cancer and how you can help your loved one in this difficult time. We provide free must-read books that answer frequently asked questions about mesothelioma, too.
Visit our Facebook page for the latest in survivor stories, treatment news and inspirational images. While you're there, connect with other members of the mesothelioma community who understand exactly what you're going through.
Order a free wristband today to support your loved one. By wearing a mesothelioma wristband you can help bring awareness to this deadly cancer and also bring to light the dangers of asbestos exposure. Order today and have them shipped overnight.
Learn how to help your loved one cope with mesothelioma by participating in our monthly support group. You can participate online or over the phone to watch a presentation by our licensed mental health counselor, Dana Nolan, and share your experiences with other survivors and caregivers.