Although asbestos was once one of the most commonly-used construction materials in the United States, it has been linked with numerous aggressive cancers, including mesothelioma.
When asbestos is handled or disturbed, it splits into tiny fibers which can be inhaled. The fibers can lodge themselves into the pleural lining of the lungs or in a number of other areas where they cause tumors to grow aggressively.
Asbestos cancers can take years to develop and usually don't cause any symptoms until the cancer has already started to spread. Mesothelioma symptoms often include chest pain, fatigue and difficulty breathing, but there's no set series of symptoms that can confirm or rule out mesothelioma. Blood tests, x-rays and other tests are used to definitively diagnose the disease.
Mesothelioma can cause tumors to grow in several areas, most commonly the lining of the lungs (pleural mesothelioma) or the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma). When tiny asbestos fibers get to the bloodstream, however, they can become lodged almost anywhere in the body. Asbestos can cause cancers in the lining of the heart, stomach or other organs.
There are several different types of cancer cells associated with mesothelioma, and cell type is an important factor in establishing a patient's chances of survival. The most common cell type is epithelial, which responds relatively well to treatment as compared to aggressive sarcomatoid cancer cells. Bi-phasic cells are a mix of sarcomatoid and epithelial cells and are the second most common type of cancer for mesothelioma patients. Cell type will affect a patient's treatment options.
Mesothelioma is often considered to be terminal at diagnosis due to the aggressiveness of the cancer and the long latency period between exposure and detection. It is considered to be one of the most dangerous and aggressive cancers, and because mesothelioma is only caused by asbestos exposure, it's also a rare condition. This can make it difficult to find a knowledgeable doctor.
However, there are still several thousand new cases of mesothelioma every year and many treatments are available. Several new treatments have expanded the options for cancer patients and may increase life expectancy considerably over the next decade.
Chemotherapy drugs have changed significantly. Several new drugs target mesothelioma tumors by cutting off nutrients, gradually weakening and starving the tumors and preventing them from growing or spreading. These drugs can add years to the prognosis for a mesothelioma patient, especially when combined with other drugs and treatments.
Surgical techniques have also become more advanced, and in some cases, tumors can be partially or completely removed. As most asbestos cancers have already spread by the time they're detected, surgery options can be limited for many patients. Some surgeries are performed purely as palliative treatments, which means that they're intended to improve the patient's quality of life, but not to cure the disease.
For the best possible treatment, it's important to have a doctor who understands the challenges of asbestos-related cancers. Experienced doctors who specialize in mesothelioma will have a better understanding of patients' options and are more capable of building an effective and reliable treatment plan.
Most mesothelioma doctors will want to try several methods of treatment in order to secure the best possible chances of recovery. A typical course of treatment might include surgery, chemotherapy and targeted radiation therapy, although the patient and the physician will need to discuss which treatment options are possible in each individual case.
The location of the patient's cancer will significantly affect treatment options. For example, patients with pericardial mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the heart, may not be able to safely undergo radiation treatment. Surgery might also be dangerous in some circumstances until tumor size has been decreased substantially, usually through treatment with chemotherapy drugs. As mentioned earlier, mesothelioma cell type will also affect drug and treatment options.
Experienced doctors will be able to track the progression of mesothelioma in a detailed, accurate way and will be prepared for the significant challenges of treating the disease. They'll be better able to determine when a treatment isn't working and will be able to explain resources and options to their patients. This greatly extends the patient's quality of life and can lead to a better life expectancy in many cases.
After a mesothelioma diagnosis, finding a knowledgeable, experienced physician is the best way to improve the chances of successful treatment.