Mesothelioma is rare cancer. It accounts for only 0.3% of cancer cases diagnosed in the US. Caused by asbestos fibres, mesothelioma has a latency period of 20 to 50 years before it starts showing severe symptoms. This accounts for the poor prognosis of the patients. People who suffer from mesothelioma only live for 2 to 5 years after their initial diagnosis.
Mesothelioma is a cancer of mesothelial tissues. Mesothelial tissues serve as a protective lining for the major organs like the lungs, abdomen, and heart. The cancer is caused by asbestos fibres that are inhaled or ingested and settle in the mesothelial tissue and start damaging the cells. These damaged cells form aggregates that later form a tumour.
What is Malignant Mesothelioma?
When we talk about mesothelioma, we generally mean malignant mesothelioma. In medical terms, a malignant tumor is concerning. It means that cancer cells have started to spread from their initial point of origin. This makes the disease hard to contain and even harder to treat. Mesothelioma is detected when it has already reached its malignant stage.
Ø Malignant vs Benign Mesothelioma
Malignant mesothelioma spreads rapidly to healthy tissues and is difficult to contain. On the other hand, benign mesothelioma stays localized for a few years and can be contained. This is usually referred to as stage 1 cancer. It is hard to detect benign mesothelioma because the symptoms are very faint and easy to ignore.
Types of Malignant Mesothelioma
The first step in the diagnosis is to figure out the infected organ. This helps the doctors to determine the most suitable mesothelioma cancer treatment option available. Based on the location of the cancer cells, mesothelioma can be classified into the following types.
1. Pleural mesothelioma
Pleura is the protective lining of the lungs. It is filled with pleural fluid to facilitate the breathing process. In pleural mesothelioma, the cancer cells develop and accumulate in the pleura, causing it to thicken. About 75% of all diagnosed cases of mesothelioma are pleural.
The symptoms of pleural mesothelioma are similar to those of pneumonia or other lung diseases. This makes it harder to diagnose at an early stage. The common symptoms include cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, and fatigue.
Pleural mesothelioma has the most treatment options available because it is the most common type. Scientists have more cases to study to create effective treatments and better therapeutic techniques.
2. Peritoneal Mesothelioma
Peritoneal mesothelioma spreads in the protective lining of the abdominal cavity. The abdominal cavity contains our major organs like the intestines, stomach, kidneys, and liver. Peritoneal mesothelioma causes the abdominal fluid to build up, thickening the mesothelial lining of the abdomen. This type of cancer accounts for 20 to 24% of diagnosed mesothelioma cases.
The symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma are fairly common, including abdominal pain, nausea, gas buildup, and weight loss. Peritoneal mesothelioma hardly remains localized. With so many organs in the vicinity of the tumor, it spreads quickly and easily.
3. Pericardial Mesothelioma
Pericardial mesothelioma affects the heart. It spreads in the protective lining surrounding the heart, causing fluid buildup. Pericardial mesothelioma accounts for 1% of the total diagnosed cases, making it the rarest form of mesothelioma.
Treatment of Malignant Mesothelioma
Although mesothelioma is incurable, treatments tend to increase the life expectancy of the patients by a few years. The most commonly administered treatments are surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Doctors usually combine all three of these treatments for better results.
Surgery remains the best option to treat mesothelioma. Although it is not a cure, surgery helps decrease the symptoms. If mesothelioma is caught in the early stages, surgery is enough to put cancer in remission.
Different surgeries are done for different types of mesothelioma.
- For pleural mesothelioma, there are many surgical options available. At early stages, the surgeons remove the protective lining on the lungs and any other parts where tumor growth is indicated. If an entire lung is affected by mesothelioma, surgeons perform a more invasive procedure to remove the lung and any other cancerous tissue in the surrounding area. Another less invasive option is to drain out the excessive pleural fluid to ease breathing.
- For peritoneal mesothelioma, the surgical procedure includes removing the cancerous abdominal lining and any other tissue in the vicinity that might be affected. This is a long procedure and takes about 10 hours to complete.
- For pericardial mesothelioma, surgeons remove the protective lining of the heart. A less invasive surgical procedure involves draining out excess fluid from the mesothelial lining of the heart.
Chemotherapy involves introducing anti-cancer chemicals into the body to detect and kill cancer cells. These drugs are usually administered after surgery to kill the remaining cancer cells. Sometimes, patients are advised to undergo chemotherapy before the surgery as well.
The chemotherapy drugs are first heated to 104 to 107 degrees and then allowed to circulate the affected area for 2 hours. In this time, the drugs manage to absorb into the cancer cells and destroy them.
Chemotherapy, combined with surgery, can increase the average survival time by 35-80 months.
Radiation therapy involves high-energy particles that are introduced to the cancerous area in the body to shrink the tumors. Radiation is often administered after surgery and chemotherapy for better results.
In addition, many alternative treatment options are also available. Most of them are still in the research process and may show groundbreaking results in the future.
If you or any of your loved ones are diagnosed with mesothelioma, the first step is to learn about the disease. Know what to expect while undergoing treatment. Consult your doctor, take second opinions, and find support groups that may help you along the journey. This will help you prepare yourself for mentally taxing days ahead while undergoing therapy.