Unlike many cancers that can develop in a matter of months to years, mesothelioma is a very slow-moving cancer that develops over decades. When patients are first diagnosed, many are confused about why they did not know sooner, or even how they developed it in the first place. Knowing about the development process of mesothelioma can help patients recognize when or why they have developed this rare cancer, and also help others become more informed about their risks, and symptoms to look for if they believe they may be at risk in the future.
Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos, a harmful mineral material once widely used for construction, industrial purposes, household goods, and more. It has unique qualities that make it desirable for such tasks; it is heat and fire resistant, does not conduct electricity, is impenetrable by chemicals and harmful materials, and is strong and durable while remaining flexible. Many mesothelioma patients were once unknowingly exposed to asbestos in the workplace, in a home, by wearing clothing laced with asbestos fibers, or breathing in fibers in a school or other building. Depending on initial exposure and how many years following a person continues to be exposed to asbestos, the risk of developing mesothelioma increases greatly.
Mesothelioma can take anywhere from 30- 40 years to develop into a full grown cancer. Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos will develop the cancer, but even a few short exposures can trigger development. There is no connection yet between gender, age, or exposure rate for patients–it’s just how your body handles the asbestos inside. Asbestos fibers cannot be broken down by the body’s natural processes. Instead, they remain trapped inside the lungs and mesothelium, a tissue membrane lining the vital organs. The chemicals in asbestos also affect the cells themselves, down to the genetic structure. The asbestos can cause these cells to malfunction and multiply out of control, leading to a cancerous mesothelioma tumor.
Onset of Symptoms
Unfortunately, symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases often don’t begin to show themselves until the cancer has already developed into the later stages. Often, patients are unaware of their previous exposure to asbestos, and give no thought to their symptoms being caused by mesothelioma. Unlike other types of cancer that have outward signs and symptoms, such as bruising due to leukemia or a large lumps that can be felt, mesothelioma has no outward physical signs that something is wrong. Symptoms of mesothelioma often include:
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- Chest pains
- Trouble swallowing
- Weight loss
These symptoms are similar to the symptoms of common colds, viruses, the flu, and pneumonia, as well as other diseases, and can therefore be overlooked by both patient and doctor. Without proper testing, a correct diagnosis can’t be made based on these symptoms alone. It is estimated that mesothelioma patients often show symptoms for at least six months before a diagnosis is made. During this time, they may self-medicate or be treated for the wrong illness. All the while, the mesothelioma cancer continues to grow and develop each day.
Certain tests and procedures are necessary to correctly diagnose mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis. First, a doctor will get a proper image of the suspected tumor using an X-ray, a CT scan, an MRI, or all three. From there, he or she will perform a biopsy, which involves using a small needle to extract tissues from the suspected tumor. The samples will be taken to a lab for further testing to determine if the cells are cancerous or not. If the cells are determined to be cancerous malignant mesothelioma, your doctor will most likely talk over treatment options with you and your family, and also begin to stage the disease. Staging is the process of determining how developed the cancer is, and whether or not it has spread to other parts of the body. Further testing may be needed to determine the stage of cancer. However, it is necessary, as it will help doctors and oncologists determine the best course of treatment for the patient, as well as determine a prognosis of health for the future.
Once the mesothelioma has been staged, patients will have a few options for treatment. If the cancer is at an earlier stage, traditional routes of chemotherapy and radiation therapy will be suggested as a way to shrink and eradicate the tumor, and keep it from spreading elsewhere. If the tumor is localized enough, surgery may also be an option. For patients in later stages of mesothelioma, treatment is often harder to determine. Historically, traditional treatment methods prove ineffective at getting rid of the cancer, and may make the body even weaker than it already is. Unfortunately, the majority of patients are put in this position, as mesothelioma is often not diagnosed until patients have progressed into the latest stages. Many patients seek alternative options for treatment, such as pain-relieving palliative treatments of massage and aromatherapy, experimental clinical trials, and more. These treatments, although not intended to eradicate the cancer, help patients feel more comfortable as the cancer continues to develop.