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Complications of Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a terrible type of cancer. It is aggressive, difficult to diagnose, and challenging to treat. It causes uncomfortable symptoms, as do the treatment methods used to try to control or eliminate tumor growth. The prognosis is not good for most people diagnosed with mesothelioma, as it is incurable and patients rarely go into remission.

Additionally, mesothelioma can cause numerous complications ranging from pleural effusions to pain to emotional trauma. Treatments, especially surgical procedures, can also cause serious complications. Complete care and treatment for someone with mesothelioma must consider all the possible complications. There are many ways in which these can be mitigated and reduced, but it requires the coordination of the complete medical team overseeing patient care.

Physical Complications

Pleural mesothelioma is the most common type of mesothelioma cancer. It impacts the tissue surrounding the lungs and the chest cavity. Many of the complications of pleural mesothelioma are related to the lungs and breathing, but may also affect the diaphragm, the heart, and the spine. Most common complications are difficulty breathing, chest pains, and difficulty swallowing.

Also fairly common for patients with pleural mesothelioma is pleural effusion. This occurs when fluids accumulate in the chest cavity. It compresses the lungs and makes breathing difficult and painful. The only way to treat it is to drain the fluid, but it will likely fill up again after treatment. Pain is also fairly common with mesothelioma. The tumors of the pleural tissue can push up against the spin and nerves, which causes pain. Surgery or use of painkillers may help reduce pain.

More serious complications may occur as the cancer progresses. These may include collapse of the lungs. The growth of tumors around the lungs can lead to changes of pressure and unusual accumulation of air, which ultimately leads to a collapse. As the cancer advances, it may also metastasize. When tumors develop in other parts of the body, these can cause even more complications, for example seizures with brain tumors.

Complications of Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is one of the most common treatment strategies for most types of cancer, including mesothelioma. It involves administering drugs that target and kill fast-growing cells. Because this treatment is not specific to cancer cells, it kills some healthy cells that grow and divide quickly. This leads to side effects and complications that must be weighed against the benefits of controlling or reducing tumor growth.

Chemotherapeutic treatment causes a number of immediate side effects, like nausea, vomiting, hair loss, diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, mouth sores, constipation, bruising and pain. It also may cause more lasting complications. These include damaged lung tissue, kidney damage, nerve damage, infertility, and heart problems.

Radiation Effects

Another treatment that is often used for mesothelioma patients is radiation, which involves aiming a beam of high energy radiation at the site of a tumor. As with chemotherapy, it can cause some side effects in the short-term. For treating tumors in the chest these include skin rashes and burns, shortness of breath, a cough, chest pains, weakness, and a fever.

Radiation therapy may also cause long-term complications. Radiation damages normal, healthy cells as it penetrates the body to reach the tumor. This means it can cause serious and lasting damage to organs, like the lungs. Radiation treatment can also cause other types of cancer by damaging healthy cells and tissues.

Complications of Surgery

Not all mesothelioma patients are good candidates for surgical treatment. A tumor may be difficult to reach or it may have already spread to distant sites in the body. For those who can and choose to undergo surgery, there are risks and complications to consider. Any kind of surgery can lead to complications like bleeding, infections, blood clots, and damage to tissues. With surgery that targets the lungs, pleura, and chest cavity, there are risks of pneumonia, causing a fluid buildup in the chest, and even the loss of function in the lungs.

These complications are a concern for any type of surgery in this area of the body, but especially for an extrapleural pneumonectomy, or EPP. This is a radical type of surgery sometimes used to treat mesothelioma, and it involves removing an entire lung, with the pleural tissue, part of the diaphragm, and some lymph nodes. It gives some patients a chance at remission, but it is also risky, with one in three patients experiencing serious complications.

Emotional, Mental, and Social Effects of Mesothelioma

In addition to all the physical complications of mesothelioma and its treatments, it is important to remember that there are other types of consequences. Getting a diagnosis of an incurable type of cancer with a poor prognosis has serious effects on mental well-being. Common emotions for patients with mesothelioma are fear, anger, anxiety, depression, and stress.

Complications related to mental health can be just as important as those that effect physical health. Cancer patients are vulnerable to depression and anxiety and these can contribute to a lowered quality of life. Additionally, patients may suffer social consequences. It is easy to feel isolated while living with mesothelioma, especially since it is a rare condition. It feels lonely not having other people around who are experiencing the same devastating illness.

Mental and social complications should be addressed for patients with mesothelioma. Doctors need to be aware of things like anxiety and depression and prepared to include mental health professionals as part of the treatment team for patients. Patients should also have a strong support network of family and friends to help reduce feelings of loneliness, sadness, and anxiety. A support group made up of other mesothelioma patients, or cancer patients of any type, can also make a big difference in reducing feelings of isolation, stress, and depression.

The effects of mesothelioma go well beyond its immediate symptoms. The tumors can cause serious complications, as can the treatments used to reduce or eliminate them. In addition to the physical complications, this cancer takes a toll on mental and emotional health. Patients with mesothelioma need medical teams that will address both the treatment of the cancer and complications to improve comfort and quality of life.

Page edited by Dave Foster

Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.

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