Mesothelioma: Symptoms, Causes, Risks, Complications, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention and Prognosis

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Illustration of mesothelioma

1Overview

In the past, infrastructures were built using materials that were once known as safe and non-hazardous. However, after some time, scientists have examined the materials and concluded that these are cancerous or may increase the risk of cancer development.
One of these materials is asbestos.

Asbestos is found in soil and rocks. These mineral fibers have been used for various reasons in the past. The most common items with this material are shingles, siding on houses, insulation in attics and insulation, and vinyl tiles used for floors.

One of the common cancers linked to asbestos exposure is malignant mesothelioma, which is a form of cancer that occurs in the thin layer of tissue covering the internal organs.
This layer is also known as the mesothelium.

This is a very aggressive and dangerous type of cancer, which for some people, is considered incurable. However, there are many treatments available to manage the effects of this cancer. Mesothelioma primarily affects the lining of the lungs, which is termed pleural mesothelioma, but it can target the lining of the stomach or abdomen, too, which is known as peritoneal mesothelioma. In some cases, the testicles and heart are also affected.

In the United States, the incidence rates are about 3,000 new cases every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2017. One of the main causes of this cancer is the exposure to asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral once used in manufacturing and construction.

2Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of mesothelioma depend on which organ is affected.
These include:

Lungs

When the lungs are affected, the signs and symptoms include:

  • Difficulty of breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Fever and night sweats
  • Persistent cough
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Anorexia or loss of appetite
  • Swollen or clubbed fingertips

Abdomen Or Tummy

When the abdomen is affected, the common signs and symptoms include:

  • Swollen abdomen
  • Abdominal pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Lumps of tissue in the abdomen
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Loss of appetite or anorexia

Other forms of mesothelioma

The signs and symptoms of mesothelioma if the heart is affected include shortness of breath and chest pains. On the other hand, when the testicles are affected, there may be swelling in the area and a mass on the testicle.

3Causes

Mesothelioma is caused by the exposure to asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral made of tiny and miniature fibers that were once used in manufacturing and construction.
These fibers enter the lungs and get stuck, leading to lung damage. However, the progression of asbestos effects can be seen in about two decades after the exposure.

In 1999, the mineral was banned in construction and manufacturing, so the risk has dramatically decreased over the years. However, old buildings still contain asbestos. Hence, making sure that the building has no asbestos is important. For old buildings, renovations are needed to ensure that there are no remnants left.

In general, this form of cancer begins when a series of mutations in the gene or DNA happens in the cell. The cell will grow and multiply uncontrollably. As a result, tumor forms and this can become aggressive and deadly if it’s not detected early on.

4Risk Factors

Anything that increases the risk of the disease is considered a risk factor of mesothelioma. These include:

Personal history of asbestos exposure – People who were directly exposed to asbestos, such as construction workers, are at a higher risk of developing mesothelioma. People who were exposed to large amounts of asbestos at an early age for a prolonged period have higher risks of developing this type of cancer. Since the asbestos was banned a long time ago, people who are older today are the ones at risk of the disease.

The family history of mesothelioma – Cancer can run in families. If you have a parent, sibling or child with mesothelioma, you may have an increased risk of the disease, too.

Exposure to zeolites – Zeolites are minerals chemically related to asbestos. These are found in rocks and soil.

Radiation – Radiation exposure may also increase the risk of mesothelioma. The risk is higher if the body parts exposed are the abdomen and the trunk.

SV40 Virus – Some studies have suggested that the exposure to the SV40 virus, which is also called the simian virus 40, might increase the risk of having mesothelioma. Between 1955 and 1963, the polio vaccine injected to individuals were contaminated with this virus. About 30 million people in the United States might have been exposed to the pathogen.

Gender – Mesothelioma risk is higher in men than in women.

Age – People who are older are at a higher risk of developing mesothelioma. Though it can occur in children, the disease is rare in people under 45 years old.

Mesothelioma may affect the abdomen, heart, lungs, and testicles. Pleural mesothelioma, for instance, may spread to the chest and could place pressure on the diaphragm.
This may cause some complications such as:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty of breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Hard time swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Pain as a result of pressure on the spinal cord and nerves
  • Fluid accumulation in the chest called pleural effusion

5Diagnosis

The doctor might suspect mesothelioma based on your symptoms and his physical assessment. There are tests available to confirm the diagnosis, including:

X-ray – this can show some structures in the abdominal area

Ultrasound – Just like X-ray, this test will show the internal areas and if the cancer is located in which area in the abdomen.

CT scan (computed tomography scan) – CT scan can detect abnormalities in the internal structures of the body since it can show 3D cross-sectional images of the abdomen and lungs.

Fluid drainage – This test is done if there’s a build-up of fluid in the lungs and abdomen. The fluid can be aspirated through a needle and it will be sent to the laboratory to be examined.

Laparoscopy or thoracoscopy – This test will look inside the chest or abdomen through the use of a thin camera, which is inserted through a small incision. A sample of the tissue is taken for biopsy or examination under the microscope.

6Treatment

The ideal treatment for mesothelioma depends on numerous factors like the severity of the cancer spread and the patient’s general health.

Mesothelioma is considered an aggressive disease and for most people, there is still no cure for the disease. However, many treatments are used to manage the symptoms of the disease. Here are the common treatments:

Surgery – Surgery is commonly used to remove mesothelioma when it’s detected early. In some cases, this can cure cancer. The options include:

  • Surgery to reduce fluid build-up in the lungs and abdomen
  • Surgery to remove as much of cancer as possible
  • Surgery to remove the tissue or lining around the abdomen and lungs
  • Surgery to remove the damaged and affected lung and the surrounding tissue

Chemotherapy – Chemotherapy is usually used to target and kill the cancer cells. This cancer treatment may also be used before surgery or after surgery, to reduce the chance of recurrence.

Radiation therapy – Aside from chemotherapy, radiation therapy can be used to target a specific area with cancer. This can kill the cancer cells and reduce the signs and symptoms of cancer.

7Prevention

Since being exposed to asbestos is the greatest risk factor for the development of mesothelioma, the best way to reduce the risk is to limit the exposure at home, in school, at work, and in public buildings.

The people who are exposed to asbestos are those who are factory workers, miners, railroad and automotive workers, insulation manufacturers, construction workers, and plumbers. They should wear protective equipment to reduce the exposure to the mineral. This is important, especially when reconstructing, renovating or demolishing old buildings.

For the workers, always follow the employer’s safety regulations. Wearing protective equipment is important. Also, you need to take a bath and change clothes if you are going home or taking a break from work. This will reduce the risk of you, carrying the dangerous minerals home.

When you are buying your home, especially if the house isn’t brand new, make sure you test for asbestos in the infrastructure, especially in the basement. Older homes and buildings may still contain asbestos. In many cases, it’s now more dangerous to remove the asbestos than to leave it intact. Breaking the asbestos on the walls or ceilings may lead to the fibers to become airborne, which is easier to inhale.

When renovating the house, make sure to hire someone who will detect asbestos at home. Also, they can remove the asbestos without making it airborne.

8Prognosis

Unfortunately, the outlook for mesothelioma tends to be poor. This is one of the most aggressive types of cancer and if it’s treated late, it may lead to serious symptoms and could progress rapidly, affecting the vital organs in the body such as the lungs and the heart.

Also, there is still no cure for this disease. The only treatment options available are to reduce the chance of the disease to progress quickly and to reduce the symptoms of the disease.