Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the sacs in the chest. In the chest there are sacs surrounding the abdominal cavity called the peritoneum, the lung cavity called the pleura, and the heart called the pericardium. The most common form of mesothelioma is pleural mesothelioma. There are also two types of cells that mesothelioma will affect: skin cells and muscle cells. The medical term for skin is epithelium, and the medical term for muscle is sarcoma. Now you will understand the terms epithelial mesothelioma and sarcomatoid mesothelioma. If you guessed mesothelioma of the skin and mesothelioma of the muscle you would be correct. Epithelial mesothelioma is the most common with sarcomatoid mesothelioma representing only about 15% of mesothelioma cases.
Surprisingly, this type of cancer can often be asymptomatic, meaning without symptoms. Most people; however, do complain about shortness of breath and sometimes chest pain. This can lead to a checkup and a finding of mesothelioma or it can be discovered through an abnormal x-ray or a routine physical exam. If the disease begins to progress, it can cause shortness of breath to increase, as well as a decreased appetite. Night sweats may become a problem as well. If a tumor begins to grow, it could put pressure on various local organs such as the voice box, causing a change in the patient’s voice. The diaphragm could be pushed aside, causing it to stop functioning too.
Where does mesothelioma come from? Interestingly, it does not usually occur on its own like some cancers. Malignant mesothelioma happens to people who have been exposed to large amounts of asbestos, either on the job or even by living in a house that has not been thoroughly rid of asbestos. In 1983 OSHA, the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration, laid out restrictions against the use of asbestos. Coincidentally, it was around this time that the number of new cases of mesothelioma began to stabilize. No such restrictions were put to use in Europe, and the number of new mesothelioma cases has only continued to rise.
You may wonder how long your body can take being exposed to asbestos without contracting mesothelioma. Studies have shown that in a time as short as one or two months of exposure there is danger of getting this disease. It has such a lengthy latency period (the time in which it lies dormant before showing up in your body) that it can take 30 to 40 years for symptoms to develop.
Mesothelioma is a sneaky type of cancer. Usually the prognosis does not bode well. It can be asymptomatic for so long that by the time it is diagnosed, it may be too late. An average life span post diagnosis is approximately one year.
The only treatments commonly used are surgery, to remove the cancer, chemotherapy, drugs that give radiation intravenously to kill all cells that it comes into contact with, and radiation therapy, a high dose x-ray that kills cancer cells, as well as healthy cells that they come into contact with. New methods are being explored. It is best to keep in mind that staying healthy means feeding your body the right types of nutrients, and getting the proper amounts of rest and exercise. There really is no substitute for prevention.