The 411 on Mesothelioma

We have discussed how 20% of newly diagnosed cancer cases in the US is comprised of rare cancers. One of these rare cancers is mesothelioma. Here is what you need to know about it.

The Definition

The American Cancer Society (ACS) defines mesothelioma as “a cancer that starts in cells in the linings of certain parts of the body, especially in the linings of the chest or abdomen.” It is named after the mesothelium, or “the layer of flat cells, derived from the mesoderm, that lines the body cavity of the embryo. In the adult it forms the simple squamous epithelium that covers the surface of all true serous membranes,” says The Medical Dictionary. Simply put, mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer “that develops in the lining that covers the outer surface of some of the body’s organs,” explains NHS.uk.

The Mesothelium

A specialized set of cells called mesothelial cells pads the inside of the abdomen, chest, and the space around the heart. These cells are also present in most of your internal organs, as it also covers the outer surface of these organs. These lining or pads created by mesothelial cells are referred to as the mesothelium.

It helps protect your organs in a number of ways, such as by creating a special lubricant that allows your organs to move against each other without damaging themselves. A clearer indication of this is when your lungs expand and contract inside your chest.

However, these growths can also develop in these cells. These tumors can either be malignant or benign.

The Four Kinds of Malignant Mesothelioma

A malignant mesothelioma is cancerous. It typically begins in four parts of the body, namely:

  • Pleural mesotheliomas – These cancerous cells start in the mesothelium in the lungs. It is estimated that 3 out of 4 cases of mesotheliomas are pleural mesotheliomas.
  • Peritoneal mesotheliomas – These tumors begin in the abdomen and comprise 1 out of 4 cases of mesotheliomas.
  • Pericardial mesotheliomas – While mesotheliomas are rare to begin with, this form of the cancer is even rarer. It starts at the mesothelium surrounding the heart.
  • Mesotheliomas of the tunica vaginalis – An even rarer form of the disease, these cancerous cells begin at the covering layer of the testicles.

Overall, the disease is fairly rare in the country, with only about 3,000 new cases diagnosed annually. It typically affects men more than women, and is common among whites and Hispanics/Latinos, in comparison with Asian or African Americans. It is also more common among the older generation, in comparison with younger people.

It is, however, an aggressive and deadly form of cancer. While treatment is available, many patients who suffered from the disease found that it cannot be beaten back.

The Symptoms

Mesothelioma is one of the cancers that have different characteristics depending on where it has developed. Some of the more common symptoms are:

  • Peritoneal mesothelioma (abdomen) – unexplained weight loss, abdominal pain and swelling, lumps of tissue in the abdomen
  • Pleural mesothelioma (lungs) – painful coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, unexplained weight loss, and lumps of tissue on the chest, difficulty swallowing, accumulation of fluid in the chest  
  • Pericardial mesothelioma (heart) – chest pains, breathing difficulties
  • Mesothelioma of tunica vaginalis (testes) – swelling or mass on the testicle

These symptoms are not alarming on their own and may be misconstrued as symptoms for other diseases. If you have been exposed to asbestos, then the risk of you contracting mesothelioma should be considered.

The Asbestos Connection

The Mayo Clinic says that asbestos exposure is “the primary risk factor for mesothelioma.” Indeed, many of the patients who have been diagnosed with the disease were exposed to asbestos at one point or another. While many people have had exposure to asbestos and did not contract mesothelioma, there were those who were only briefly exposed to asbestos and immediately developed the disease.

Mayo Clinic explains that when asbestos is broken up, dust may be created which are then inhaled or swallowed. When this happens, the fibers can settle in the lungs or stomach, where they can lay in wait on the mesothelium. In about 20 to 40 years after the exposure, the disease can develop.

The same source warns that you can be at risk of mesothelioma if you:

  • Have a personal history of asbestos exposure – such as if you are working with asbestos (insulation, construction, mining, etc). If you do, then make sure that you shower and change your clothes before going home to avoid bringing asbestos into your home.
  • Lives with someone who works with the mineral – asbestos fibers can cling to a person’s skin and clothing. When people with asbestos on their persons come home, the fibers can then transfer to your couch, carpets, and other furniture. In this way, the fibers are spread and put at risk the rest of the family.
  • Have a family history of the disease – as with most cancers, the risk of contracting mesothelioma increases if you have a family member with the disease.

The Diagnosis

Unfortunately, there is no widely recommended screening test for mesothelioma. However, people who have been exposed to asbestos are encouraged to go to the doctor if they think they are at risk of the disease. Chest x-rays and CT scans are usually used by doctors to rule out the disease. Over the years, it has been determined that those with the disease have certain substances in their blood that are indicative of mesothelioma. For this reason, going to the doctor early on can help foster early diagnosis.

The 5-year survival rate for mesothelioma is between 5-10%, says the ACS. Those who were diagnosed at a younger age tend to be more likely to live longer, than those whose diseases are already advanced before the diagnosis.

The same source goes on to give a median survival for the different stages of mesothelioma. They are Stage 1 – 21 months; Stage 2 – 19 months; Stage 3 – 16 months; and Stage 4 – 12 months.

Of course, it is worth pointing out that these statistics are not a reality for everyone. They are just the average – meaning to say that it is still entirely possible for a person with an advanced kind of the disease to still push pass it.