Malignant mesothelioma is a type of cancer that is both rare and aggressive. It is most often caused by repeated exposure to asbestos, although not everyone exposed to the mineral will develop this type of cancer. The most common form of mesothelioma is called pleural and it attacks the lining of the lungs. Other types are less common, but may be just as deadly.
All types of malignant mesothelioma are cancers of the mesothelium, a thin, double layer of tissue that covers most organs in the body. In addition to the pleura, this kind of cancer may attack the peritoneum, which lines the organs in the abdominal cavity, the pericardium, which lines the heart, and the lining of the testicles. While there are treatment options available, malignant mesothelioma is too often caught late and is therefore incurable.
Asbestos and Malignant Mesothelioma
Asbestos is the leading risk factor for this malignant type of cancer. It has been used for thousands of years, but only in large quantities in the last 200 years or so. It has been used to insulate homes, to strengthen materials like cement and glue, and in many applications in shipping. Asbestos is made up of small fibers, which can easily be inhaled if they become airborne. When asbestos is well-contained within a material, it poses no danger. When it becomes disturbed, however, it can be deadly.
Anyone who spent a career working around or with asbestos is at risk for malignant mesothelioma. Inhaling the fibers causes them to become lodged in tissues where they cause damage. Over many years this can lead to cancer and other illnesses. In most cases the damage accumulates, but symptoms don’t show up for decades. This leads to a lot of instances of late diagnoses, which makes the cancer more difficult to treat.
Types of Mesothelioma
Malignant mesothelioma may take one of a few different forms. All of these are difficult to diagnose and most often impossible to cure. Treatments are focused on extending life and giving patients relief from symptoms.
- Pleural Mesothelioma. This type of malignant cancer affects the pleura around the lungs and is the most common form of mesothelioma. It is most common because exposure to asbestos mostly occurs through inhalation. The fibers can get embedded in the pleura and cause cancer.
- Peritoneal Mesothelioma. This is the second most common type of malignant mesothelioma and it impacts the lining of the abdomen. Inhaled particles of asbestos may travel to the abdomen, but the damage can also be caused by ingested asbestos fibers.
- Pericardial Mesothelioma. The pericardium is the lining around the heart and if asbestos fibers migrate to this part of the chest cavity, a rare type of mesothelioma may develop. There are only about 200 known cases of pericardial mesothelioma.
- Testicular Mesothelioma. The rarest of all types of mesothelioma is that which attacks the lining around the testicles. Although it is a malignant mesothelioma, it is much more treatable than the other three types. Surgery may be curative for some patients.
One reason malignant mesothelioma is so deadly is that early symptoms of the cancer are mild and similar to symptoms of more common illnesses. It often takes decades for someone with this type of cancer to be diagnosed because of the symptoms, which vary by type of mesothelioma.
Pleural mesothelioma is characterized by a persistent cough, chest pains, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma are similar and peritoneal mesothelioma causes swelling and pain in the abdomen, a feeling of fullness and distension, bowel obstructions, and hernias. Testicular mesothelioma most often causes a lump that is the typical first sign of the illness.
Diagnosis of Malignant Mesothelioma
Diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma too often comes too late for treating the cancer effectively. A person may experience mild symptoms for years without realizing it is cancer or may be misdiagnosed with something like chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, heart disease, or irritable bowel syndrome.
After a general physical exam and medical history, a doctor will most likely try to rule out these more common illnesses. If cancer is suspected, the next step is typically to have imaging scans done to look for the presence of tumors. CT scans, MRIs, PET scans, and X-rays can all be used for this purpose, alone or in combination.
If tumors are found, the next steps in diagnosing the type of cancer is to biopsy the tumor and remove a sample of cells. These can then be examined to determine the origin of the tumor and whether it is mesothelioma or another type of cancer. This is not always accurate, and misdiagnoses can still be made at this stage.
In addition to diagnosing malignant mesothelioma, it is also important to stage it. Staging is a way to describe the progression of cancer and it allows doctors to develop appropriate treatment. Unfortunately mesothelioma is often diagnosed in the later stages, when it has spread throughout the chest cavity or even out to further locations in the body.
With malignant mesothelioma as a diagnosis and a stage assigned, a medical team can work with the patient to suggest treatment options. Depending on where the mesothelioma tumors are and how advanced the cancer is, a patient may receive chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. Most often these three strategies are used together as a multimodal approach for the best possible outcome.
Because this type of cancer is so aggressive, treatments are most often unable to cure the disease, but may prolong life. The treatment plan can also be used to help provide relief from symptoms. For example, removing mass from a tumor near the lungs can help a patient breathe more easily, even if it will not stop the spread of the cancer.
Prognosis for Malignant Mesothelioma
Multiple factors play a role in determining a prognosis for a patient with mesothelioma. The stage of the disease, the location in the body, the extent of the tumor, and even lifestyle habits of the patient will affect the outcome. Most patients with mesothelioma will not get a very positive prognosis. The cancer tends to spread aggressively and many patients will be given a life expectancy in months rather than years.
Finding the Best Treatment
Malignant mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer, and not even a great cancer center will have an expert in mesothelioma. If you suspect you may have this type of cancer, you should start with your usual doctor, but from there you may need to find a specialty treatment center or a specialist in mesothelioma. Before you settle on a specialist make sure you ask questions and get the answers that make you feel comfortable. If you ever get a diagnosis or treatment plan that you are unsure of, get a second opinion.
Look for the handful of cancer centers in the U.S. that specialize in mesothelioma research and treatment. At these facilities you will get the best experts in malignant mesothelioma, but also cutting edge treatments. Many of these cancer centers participate in clinical trials. This means you may have the chance to try the latest and most innovative treatments. These come with risks, but the benefits could be great.
Malignant Mesothelioma Lawsuits, Trust Funds, and Settlements
Getting a diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma is devastating, especially if you find out that your workplace most likely caused it. Thousands of people will find out they have this type of cancer and that they never realized they were being exposed to dangerous asbestos at work. The shortened life expectancy is terrible, but at the ends of their lives, these patients also face major expenses for treatment.
If you are facing mesothelioma treatment and you think your workplace poisoned you without your knowledge of the risks of asbestos exposure, you have avenues for seeking compensation. Many companies have set up asbestos trust funds to help fund new cases of mesothelioma as they are diagnosed. You may also be able to start a lawsuit if your employer does not have a trust fund, or if you think the manufacturer of a product you worked with is to blame. Many people have received generous settlements for malignant mesothelioma and have gotten the money they need to pay for treatment and end-of-life care.
Veterans and Malignant Mesothelioma
Some of the people most affected by asbestos exposure and this type of cancer are U.S. military veterans, especially those that served in the U.S. Navy. Ships used asbestos throughout and in multiple applications, exposing sailors to a huge degree. The peak use of asbestos on military ships occurred between 1935 and 1975. Veterans getting a diagnosis today of malignant mesothelioma have options for treatment and benefits.
Veterans may seek care at Veterans Affairs hospitals, including the hospital in Los Angeles that partners with the Pacific Mesothelioma Center. Here there are experts in mesothelioma treatment that can help affected veterans. Veterans also have access to monetary benefits, including special monthly compensation, dependency and indemnity compensation, and disability compensation.
If you have been diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, you are likely to have been exposed to asbestos and someone may be to blame for that. Whether you were in construction, worked on ships, or worked in another industry, you probably didn’t realize that you were at risk for this terrible type of cancer. Let a mesothelioma lawyer help guide you and figure out what your next steps should be.
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