There’s a cancer out there we’ve all heard of, but not in the usual ways. News of this particular type has spread via law office TV commercials and notifications of class-action lawsuits around the country.
Even though the culprit of this cancer has been shut down for years, it’s still showing up in people today.
Read on to discover more about this mysterious type of cancer.
Did you guess the cancer I’m talking about is mesothelioma?
Dozens of lawyers advertise their services for people exposed to asbestos in the workplace who developed it years later. But what is mesothelioma? And for that matter, what’s asbestos?
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a mineral fiber that naturally occurs in rock and soil. It’s very strong and resistant to heat and fire, making it the perfect choice for use in building construction materials and manufactured goods like roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, insulation, car brakes and transmission parts, heat-resistant fabrics and the like.
Unfortunately, this “perfect” material came with one major drawback that no one realized until much too late.
Workers and their families exposed to asbestos fibers developed mesothelioma, a type of rare and hard-to-treat cancer that affects the mesothelium, or lining around lungs, heart and abdomen.
Four kinds of Mesothelioma
About 3,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with mesothelioma of all types.(1) It’s relatively rare, but aggressive and difficult to treat.
Pleural mesothelioma is the most common type, and therefore has benefitted from the most research. It’s caused by breathing in the fine asbestos fibers, where they become lodged in the pleura, the mesothelium around the lungs.
The fibers are so tiny that the body can’t expel them. They stay in the mesothelium indefinitely and can eventually cause inflammation and scarring. This damages cells’ DNA, causing them to mutate and, in certain cases, grow tumors.
Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pains
- Painful cough
- Wheezing and/or rattling when breathing
- Reduced ability to take a deep breath and expand the chest.(2)
In many cases, people confuse pleural mesothelioma symptoms with common respiratory illnesses. If you’ve been exposed to asbestos tell your doctor and if you experience any of these symptoms get them checked out.
To clarify, pleural mesothelioma is not lung cancer. The two types are distinct in that pleural mesothelioma starts as tumors in, and spreads along, the lining of the lungs, and is almost always attributed to asbestos inhalation.
Lung cancer can be caused by a variety of risk factors, including cigarette smoking, and the tumors begin and spread in the lung tissue.
Peritoneal mesothelioma is caused by swallowing asbestos fibers, which then get lodged in the peritoneum, the protective lining of the abdominal cavity.
The peritoneum is rich with blood vessels, lymph vessels, nerves and connective tissue to support all the organs contained within the abdomen, such as the kidneys, liver, spleen, intestines and pancreas.
When years of lodged fibers compromise the peritoneum it causes symptoms such as
- Loss of appetite followed by weight loss
- Build-up of fluid in the abdomen
- Swelling and tenderness in the abdomen
- A sense of being too full, without having eaten
- Bowel obstruction.(3)
Pericardial mesothelium affects the pericardium, the thin lining around the heart. It can be caused by either inhalation or ingestion.
Only about 1% of all diagnosed mesothelioma cases are of this type (fewer than 50 people a year). It is extremely difficult to treat because of its close proximity to the heart. The standard procedure of treatment is surgical removal of the pericardium.
Symptoms of this type of mesothelioma include
- Chest pains
- Fluid build-up around the heart
- Heart murmurs
Testicular mesothelioma affects the lining of the testicles and is also very rare. Less than 1% of diagnosed cases are of this type each year.
Because it is so rare there is not a lot of research available, but it’s believed that this type of mesothelioma is not caused by asbestos exposure.
In the cases of testicular mesothelioma the symptoms include a lump or lumps in one or both of the testicles.
Options for treatment of mesothelioma
The conventional treatment for mesothelioma is surgery when possible, plus chemotherapy and/or radiation. Since it’s aggressive and difficult to treat, aggressive therapies have been the traditional route.
However, research is showing success with alternative types of treatment for mesotheliomas. These include:
Gene Therapy: Numerous studies have experimented with gene manipulation and using virus vaccines to treat pleural mesothelioma.(5) One 2005 study published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research treated 21 patients with a single intrapleural dose of adenovirus herpes simplex virus thymidine kinase/ ganciclovir.
The theory is that the injection would trigger apoptosis in the tumors. The treatment was well-tolerated in the patients and resulted in long-term antibody responses to the tumor in two patients.(6) More research needs to be done, but these are encouraging first steps.
Photodynamic Therapy: In this type of treatment the tumor is injected with a solution that makes the tissue more sensitive to light, then is exposed to light to trigger cell death. This treatment works well in conjunction with a pleurectomy, removal of the affect pleura, to prevent having to remove part of the lung as well.(7)
Cryotherapy is a process of using cold temperatures to shrink tumors. It’s been used against other kinds of cancer and is being tested for use against mesothelioma. A 2013 study found that localized treatment of pleural mesothelioma following surgery was safe, effective and improved overall survival rates to 36.1 months.(8)
The success of both conventional and alternative treatments is largely dependent on the stage in which the mesothelioma is diagnosed. Stages 1 and 2 have a fairly good chance of survival.
By Stage 3 and 4, however, the prognosis is generally short and grim. By these stages palliative care is usually used to make the patient more comfortable rather than attempts made to beat the cancer.
Researchers are continuously testing the efficacy of immunotherapy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, emotion-based therapies and other alternative treatments against mesothelioma in search of a cure or, at the very least, more reliable and effective ways of combatting this aggressive illness.
How worried should you be about asbestos?
Even though asbestos use has been phased out, mesothelioma cases continue to be reported because this type of cancer a long latency period.
One study of cases of pleural mesothelioma in the Trieste-Monfalcone area of Italy found that latency periods ranged from 14 to 72 years (the average period being 48.7 years between asbestos exposure and death from mesothelioma).(9)
Asbestos mines are no longer in operation in the United States, but people living near them continue to develop the disease.
While people with long-term exposure to asbestos are at the highest risk of developing various types of mesothelioma, even short-term exposure can increase a person’s risk.
But, the majority of people who have been exposed to asbestos do not develop mesothelioma at all. Genetic makeup and other facts play a role in a person’s risk for developing this rare cancer.
If you live in an older home or work in an old building that has asbestos materials, you are not at risk of exposure unless the building is being renovated without proper precautions. Being near asbestos isn’t the problem, it’s inhaling and swallowing the miniscule fibers that can lead to complications later in life.
Some segments of the population are still considered to be at risk of asbestos exposure, such as shipyard, power plant, chemical plant and construction workers.
If you work in one of these fields, or live with workers in these fields, you should carefully monitor your health. If you notice any of the above-mentioned symptoms, do not pass them off as a cold or ignore them. See your doctor immediately.
If it is mesothelioma, the earlier you address the situation the better off you are.
- Pleural mesothelioma. https://mesothelioma.net/mesothelioma/
- Peritoneal mesothelioma. https://mesothelioma.net/mesothelioma/
- Pericardial mesothelioma. https://mesothelioma.net/mesothelioma/
- Emerging therapeutic options for mesothelioma (See Table 6). http://www.phlbi.org/wp-content/uploads/2015-Kotova-Emerging-Therapeutic-Options-for-Mesothelioma.pdf
- Long-term follow-up of patients with malignant pleural mesothelioma receiving high-dose adenovirus herpes simplex thymidine kinase/ganciclovir suicide gene therapy. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16243818
- Photodynamic therapy for mesothelioma. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11864-001-0042-4
- Abstract No. 319 – Role of percutaneous cryoablation in management of recurrent mesothelioma following lung sparing pleurectomy and decortications. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1051044313003850
- Latency periods in asbestos-related mesothelioma of the pleura. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Claudio_Bianchi/publication/13982866_Latency_periods_in_asbestos-related_mesothelioma_of_the_pleura/links/5417f30a0cf2218008befff4.pdf