Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that occurs when malignant (cancerous) cells start to develop in the mesothelium (a thin membrane that lines the chest and abdomen). It is almost always caused by previous exposure to asbestos (hence the alternate name “asbestos lung cancer”) and can take up to sixty years to develop fully. According to Cancer Backup UK it affects approximately 2000 people in the UK each year. In this article I will be discussing mesothelioma in greater detail.
The mesothelium is divided into two parts:
1) THE PLEURA:- The lining of the lungs. Mesothelioma which affects the pleura is known as Pleural Mesothelioma.
2) THE PERITONEUM:- The lining of the abdomen. Mesothelioma which affects the peritoneum is known as Peritoneal Mesothelioma.
Of the two types, pleural mesothelioma is much more common with an estimated 12 cases of pleural mesothelioma for every 1 case of peritoneal mesothelioma. In the sections below I will discuss both types of mesothelioma in greater detail:
1) PLEURAL MESOTHELIOMA:- The pleura is comprised of an inner layer (which is next to the lung) and an outer layer (which lines the wall of the chest). The two layers of the pleura slide over each other as we breath and often produce fluid to make this process easier.
When pleural mesothelioma develops the two layers become thicker and start to press inwards on the lungs. This can lead to the development of multiple symptoms including:
– Coughing or Wheezing.
– Pain in the walls of the Chest.
– Pleural Effusion (where the lubricating fluid becomes trapped between the two layers of the pleura).
2) PERITONEAL MESOTHELIOMA:- The peritoneum is also comprised of an inner layer (which is next to the abdominal organs) and an outer layer (which coats the abdominal wall).
When peritoneal mesothelioma develops, the inner and outer layers of the peritoneum start to thicken. This can then lead to a number of symptoms including:
– Ascites (where fluid collects in the abdomen and causes swelling).
– Abdominal Pain.
– Improper Bowel Functioning.
Unike the majority of cancers where the causes are unknown, mesothelioma is thought to be caused by exposure to asbestos. Almost every person who develops mesothelioma has a history of exposure to asbestos. Asbestos was previously imported into the UK in large quantities and was a very popular construction material. However, as our understanding of the material has grown the dangers of using asbestos have become clear. One of the dangers of asbestos is that when it becomes disturbed or damaged, very fine fibres are released. These fibres can then be unwittingly inhaled (leading to the ultimate possibility of pleural mesothelioma) or swallowed (leading to the ultimate possibility of peritoneal mesothelioma). In the 1980s UK imports of blue and brown asbestos were banned and in 1999 all importation and usage of asbestos was banned.
Mesothelioma is a very serious type of cancer and the survival rates are low. If you notice any of the symptoms mentioned it is very important that you go and see your doctor immediately. When talking to your doctor try and inform them of any historical exposure to asbestos that you are aware of. Based on this they will then be able to perform a number of tests and make an accurate diagnosis. These tests include:
1) CHEST X-RAY:- A chest x-ray will allow your doctor to check for any changes in your lungs (thickening of the pleura, fluid in the lungs etc) which indicate pleural mesothelioma.
2) COMPUTERISED TOMOGRAPHY (CT) SCAN:- A CT scan takes a series of x-rays to build a 3D image of the inside of your body. This type of scan will allow your doctor to look for signs of both pleural mesothelioma and peritoneal mesothelioma.
3) FINE NEEDLE ASPIRATION CYTOLOGY (FNAC):- If the x-ray or CT scan reveal pleural effusion or ascites your doctor may then perform FNAC. This involves using a fine needle to extract some of the liquid from the pleura or peritoneum. This liquid can then be analysed for the presence of mesothelioma cells.
4) BIOPSY:- If the x-ray or CT scan indicate thickening of the mesothelium your doctor may perform a biopsy. This involves using a special type of needle to take a sample of cells which can then be analysed for mesothelioma.
If any of the tests reveal mesothelioma your doctor will then start you on the appropriate course of treatment. The appropriate treatment will depend upon how far advanced the mesothelioma is. A selection of the possible treatments are discussed below:
1) SURGERY:- If the mesothelioma has not spread significantly surgery may be viable. The most common type of surgery for mesothelioma involves removing the lining of the chest. However, in most cases surgery is not viable because the mesothelioma has spread too far.
2) CHEMOTHERAPY:- This involves using anti-cancer medications to control the symptoms of mesothelioma and to slow its growth.
3) RADIOTHERAPY:- This involves using high energy radiation beams in an attempt to kill of the malignant cells. However, in most cases it is only effective in slowing the growth of mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer and according to Wikipedia it affects 1 person in every 1,000,000. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most difficult to diagnose and treat if it is contracted. The number of people developing mesothelioma is expected to increase over the next few years, since it can take up to sixty years after exposure to asbestos before any symptoms surface. I hope this article has made you aware of the potential risks and helps you spot the symptoms as soon as possible.
Whilst every intention has been made to make this article accurate and informative, it is intended for general information only. Mesothelioma is a very serious, life threatening condition and you should discuss any concerns, treatments or lifestyle changes fully with your doctor.
Sources and Further Reading:
Asbestos Information (Asbestos.net)
Asbestos Information (Wikipedia)
Mesothelioma Doctors and Treatment Centers in the US
Mesothelioma Information (Cancer Backup UK)
Mesothelioma Information (Wikipedia)
Mesothelioma Lung Cancer