Mesothelioma is a form of cancer which strikes the mesothelium—the membranes which line the chest and abdominal cavities, and cover the lungs, heart and abdomen. This protective lining produces a lubricating fluid, which allows the organ to move against one another without friction as the body moves. When cancer invades this body part, it can be devastating. Here are five unusual characteristics that help contribute to the devastation this cancer can wreak upon a patient.
- Mesothelioma is almost always associated with asbestos exposure. A fire-resistant mineral that can be incorporated into industrial and consumer products, asbestos is composed of microscopic fibers that can enter the body and embed themselves in the mesothelium. Once there, they irritate the surrounding cells, causing them to replicate randomly and uncontrollably and to develop into a malignant tumor. Approximately 70-80 percent of mesothelioma cases have been definitively traced to asbestos exposure. In the remaining cases, asbestos exposure is often suspected, but not proven. Although asbestos use within the United States has been tightly regulated since the 1980s, the material still exists in previously constructed buildings, factories and ships and so can continue to pose a problem, especially to workers who are involved in the renovation or demolition of those structures.
- Mesothelioma has an extremely long “latency period.” The latency period is defined as the time between the patient’s first exposure to asbestos and their diagnosis of mesothelioma. Unlike many cancers, which can develop quickly and manifest themselves with outward symptoms or pain, or can be detected through routine screening, mesothelioma can develop silently within the body. It’s not unusual for the disease to take between 10 and 40 years, or even longer, to be diagnosed. This means that workers who were occupationally exposed to asbestos in the mid-20th Century may only now be learning that they suffer from this cancer. Moreover, because of its asymptomatic yet aggressive development within the body, mesothelioma is very rarely caught early, when it is localized and most effectively treated. In fact, the majority of mesothelioma patients are diagnosed in Stage III or Stage IV, when treatment options are limited and prognosis is grim. The median life expectancy for a mesothelioma patient is four to 18 months, with some patients succumbing just a few weeks after learning of their diagnosis.
- The symptoms of mesothelioma are nonspecific, and may resemble those of other health issues. Some of mesothelioma’s symptoms include a persistent cough, wheezing or shortness of breath, chest or back pain, fatigue and weight loss. Since these can also indicate bronchitis, emphysema, pneumonia, or COPD, the doctor may misdiagnose the mesothelioma—and that’s if the patient consults a doctor at all. Too often he or she mistakes the symptoms for a simple chest cold or case of influenza, or even simply considers them results of advancing age, and therefore decides to wait them out or ignore them in the hopes that they’ll go away. This is another reason why mesothelioma, by the time it eventually is diagnosed correctly, has often reached the later stages.
- This form of cancer is extremely rare. It is typically diagnosed in about 3,000 new patients in the United States each year. Due to its link to asbestos, however, and the fact that asbestos use has been phased out in recent decades, the number of new mesothelioma cases is expected to peak—experts are conflicted about just when the peak will occur, but the general consensus ranges from 2010 to 2018—and then drop again. The most common form of mesothelioma is malignant pleural mesothelioma, which affects the pleura of the lungs. This kind is diagnosed in approximately 70-80% of cases. The next most frequent is peritoneal, which targets the lining the abdominal organs, and this accounts for 10-20% of cases. There are two other forms of mesothelioma: pericardial, which strikes the heart’s lining, and testicular, which occurs in the tunica vaginalis, or the lining that shields the testicles. This, the rarest of all kinds of mesothelioma, has been diagnosed in fewer than 100 individuals.
- Unlike many cancers, mesothelioma has an extremely grim prognosis. The majority of patients die within 18 months of learning that they have been stricken with the disease. Fewer than 10 percent live longer than two years post-diagnosis. Many people are granted only a few months, or even a few weeks, to live after diagnosis. It is somewhat ironic that this cancer, which can remain latent within the body for half a century or more, claims its victims so soon after their discovery of its presence. Mesothelioma is also less responsive to conventional treatments than other cancers, in part because it is usually only found at a more advanced stage. Curative surgery may be possible in Stage I, depending on the location of the tumor in relationship to the lung, but palliative surgery or inoperable tumors are more likely scenarios. Patients who feel strong enough to undergo chemotherapy and radiation may opt for these therapies, but many decide that the side effects will be too taxing, and will outweigh the potential benefits. At this point, pain medication will be administered, and some patients also pursue alternative therapies such as massage, acupuncture and herbal supplements in order to make them more comfortable.