Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that attacks the mesothelium, the thin layer of tissue covering your lungs, abdomen, heart and other organs. The most common form is pleural mesothelioma, which affects the lining protecting the lungs in the chest. The primary cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. Though long-term exposure exacerbates the risk, even those who have been exposed to asbestos only once or twice have contracted the disease. Those most at risk have worked with asbestos in mines, factories, shipyards and auto repair facilities. People who live with asbestos workers are also in danger, as these workers carry home asbestos fibers in their shoes and clothing. Before restrictions on asbestos usage were put in place, it was widely used in construction, and when old houses, schools and public buildings begin to deteriorate or are remodeled, there is a great risk of asbestos exposure. When you inhale or swallow asbestos dust or fibers, they lodge in the lungs or stomach and create irritation that leads to mesothelioma.
Symptoms of mesothelioma often take decades to appear and sometimes at first are mistaken for other, less serious ailments. Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include pain, shortness of breath, coughing, fever, fatigue, weight loss, lumps of tissue under the skin of your chest, and swelling of the arms and face. Symptoms of peritoneal, or abdominal, mesothelioma include abdominal pain and swelling, loss of appetite, weight loss, nausea and vomiting. Though these symptoms can be caused by other conditions, if you have any of these problems, especially if you have had past exposure to asbestos, see your doctor right away for a diagnosis.
If you suspect you might have mesothelioma, your doctor first takes a complete medical history, including past history of asbestos exposure. This is followed by a physical exam, during which your doctor might notice such symptoms as fluid buildup around the lungs, chest or heart. The next step might be imaging tests to locate potentially cancerous areas. These tests might include a chest x-ray, computed tomography scan, echocardiogram, positron emission tomography scan, or magnetic resonance imaging scan. Blood tests do not diagnose mesothelioma, but they might be used to determine the extent of the disease and how well your organs are working. The definitive way to diagnose mesothelioma is with a biopsy. A tissue sample is obtained by using a long thin needle, a tube-like instrument called an endoscope, or sometimes by open surgery.
Treatment depends on the extent of the cancer. For early stage mesothelioma that is considered resectable, doctors often recommend surgery, sometimes combined with chemotherapy or radiation therapy either before or after. If the cancer is too far advanced and cannot be removed by surgery, chemotherapy is usually the main treatment. It does not cure mesothelioma, but it prolongs life. Sometimes minor operations and radiation therapy are effected to help with pain management. In advanced stages, treatment is focused on relieving symptoms and making you more comfortable.