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Mesothelioma (Rare Cancer): Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment

  • Posted on- Aug 31, 2015
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Mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium, the membrane that surrounds the lungs, abdomen, and heart. Mesothelioma primarily consists of three types:

  • Pleural Mesothelioma (cancer of the mesothelium surrounding the lungs)
  • Peritoneal Mesothelioma (cancer of the mesothelium surrounding the stomach)
  • Pericardial Mesothelioma (cancer of the mesothelium surrounding the heart)

It takes approximately 30 to 40 years for mesothelioma to develop and show its effects. This is the prime reason why mesothelioma is mostly seen in older patients, mostly male. Mesothelioma is the most aggressive, painful, and fatal of all cancers.

Causes of mesothelioma

The prime cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. There are extremely rare instances when it is noticed that asbestos exposure is not the culprit, but even in these exceptionally rare instances it is possible that the person has been exposed to asbestos (indirectly) without even knowing it. Even though mesothelioma is a very rare type of cancer, it is not so rare in those who have been exposed to asbestos. Asbestos exposure could happen directly or indirectly.

Direct asbestos exposure happens when the person comes directly into contact with the asbestos fibres. Such persons could include asbestos mine workers, construction workers, building renovators, ship builders, ship breakers, clutch/brake liner workers/mechanics.

Indirect asbestos exposure happens when the person comes into indirect contact with asbestos or if they come in contact with any person who has had direct asbestos exposure. Such people include family and friends of those who have been directly exposed to asbestos. Directly exposed individuals have asbestos fibres embedded into their hair and clothing, passing the asbestos fibres to all those who come into contact with them.

A person need not be exposed to asbestos over long periods of time even short term exposure could lead to mesothelioma.

What is Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos exposure occurs when a person is subjected to the inhalation/ingestion of unseen microscopic asbestos fibres over a period of time. When inhaled, the asbestos fibres settle and get firmly lodged into the lungs.

Mesothelioma is the most common health effect caused by asbestos inhalation, but other health effects could include lung cancer and asbestosis. Mesothelioma is very different from these two, and should not be confused with lung cancer or asbestosis.

Diagnosis of mesothelioma

The diagnosis of mesothelioma is not easy since the symptoms overlap with many other common ailments such as pneumonia, the common cold, and seasonal allergies. After reviewing the patient’s complete medical history, the oncologist will ask for further tests to be conducted if he suspects mesothelioma. The best way to determine mesothelioma is through imaging tests which could include one or more of the following:

Performing a biopsy is another way of confirming mesothelioma. These could include either a Thoracoscopy or a Peritoneoscopy.

Treatment of mesothelioma

Treatment will depend entirely on the results of the tests performed. The oncologist will take into consideration at what stage the cancer has been diagnosed, and the patients age/health.

The most common type of treatment for mesothelioma is surgery, followed by radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. A combination of these treatments could be used depending on the situation.

A total cure for mesothelioma is not possible, with all treatments used to increase the life expectancy of the patient.

Is Mesothelioma Fatal?

Yes. Mesothelioma is fatal, always. It takes in between 30 to 40 years after initial exposure for mesothelioma to surface. Due to the nature of the disease, mesothelioma is almost always diagnosed when it has spread to incurable levels. At this stage, the patient will survive for just a further 12 to 18 months with treatment.

There is currently a lot of research on new ways and techniques to cure mesothelioma. Many treatments are at present undergoing clinical trials with promising results. If you suspect asbestos exposure in the past, consult your oncologist.