Mesothelioma: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, and Coping

Mesothelioma is a somewhat rare cancer, with only about 2,000 new cases diagnosed in the United States each yearbut its incidence is increasing worldwide. Sadly, most cases of this disease are related to on-the-job exposure to asbestosand could be prevented through awareness and protective measures at work. That said, in many cases, mesothelioma does not develop until decades after asbestos exposure occurs, and many people that are diagnosed today were exposed to asbestos years ago.

Mesothelioma is a cancerous (malignant)tumor that begins in the mesothelium. The mesothelium is a membrane that lines and protects the lungs, the heart, and the abdominal cavity. There are three main types of mesothelioma:

Most cases of mesothelioma are because of exposure to asbestos on the job. Other causes include:

Most people with pleural mesothelioma note shortness of breath and chest pain (especially under the ribs), but other symptoms can include:

Diagnosing mesothelioma can be difficult since there are many conditions that cause similar symptoms. Your physician will first take a careful history, especially questioning you about your employment history, and then perform a physical exam. Imaging studies are often doneand may include x-rays of your chest and abdomen, CT scans, MRI scans,or PET scans.

If your doctor suspects mesothelioma, she will need to schedule a biopsy. Depending upon the location of your tumor, she may recommend a thoracoscopyor video-assisted thoracoscopy (VAT), a procedure where a tissue sample is taken from the pleura, or a peritoneoscopy, a similar procedure to obtain tissue from the abdomen. If the biopsy reveals mesothelioma, further studies are then done to determine the stage of the cancer (how advanced it is).

Mesothelioma is divided into 2 primary stages:

Depending on the size and location of your tumor, and if it has spread, treatment options may include:

On top of the heartbreak, a diagnosis of cancer brings, many people with mesothelioma lack the emotional and psychosocial support that those with other forms of cancer find readily available. In addition, medico-legal battles related to asbestos exposure on-the-job can be emotionally draining. Participating in a support group, either through your cancer center, community, or online, can help you wade through the maze of treatment options, and find camaraderie in others who are living with mesothelioma.

The most important thing you can do to prevent mesothelioma is to use appropriate precautions if you are exposed to asbestos at work. OSHA has asbestos safety standards for individuals who may be exposed on the job. If you work with asbestos, it is important to follow these guidelines to minimize your families exposure as well. Asbestos insulation in homes is usually not a problemunless it is damaged or disturbed by remodeling projects. If you may have asbestos insulation (homes built prior to 1950) make sure to hire a contractor certified in asbestos management before you begin any home improvement projects.

Some people who have been exposed to asbestos may want to consider CT screening for lung cancer. At this time, recommendations for screening include only those people aged 55 to 74 with a 30 pack-year history of smoking. Yet studies show that some people who have been exposed to asbestos may be at an even higher risk of developing lung cancer than heavy smokers. If you’ve been exposed to asbestos make sure to talk to your doctor about lung cancer screening.


Mesothelioma: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, and Coping

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