Mesothelioma: A Guide to Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a form of cancer, which affects the outer lining of major organs. It is most often diagnosed in the lungs, but can also manifest in other organs such as the stomach and heart. The overwhelming majority of mesothelioma cases are caused by exposure to asbestos. Approximately 3,000 patients are newly-diagnosed in the United States every year.

What are the symptoms of mesothelioma?

Decreased appetite and unexplained weight loss are the primary symptoms of mesothelioma, regardless of which organs are affected. In cases of mesothelioma of the lungs, the following specific symptoms may be present:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath and/or persistent coughing
  • Fever, particularly at night
  • Fatigue

As well as the general symptoms of mesothelioma, disease of the stomach may also prompt:

  • Stomach pain and/or swelling
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Diarrhea and/or constipation

If these symptoms occur in people who have had previous exposure to asbestos, it is critically important that they are investigated as quickly as possible. This applies to individuals who worked directly with the substance, as well as family members and anyone who may have had contact with the clothing of affected workers.

What causes mesothelioma?

The primary cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. The material, known for its insulating, fire-resistant and heat-resistant properties, was widely used in heavy industry. Asbestos is comprised of tiny particles that can be easily inhaled. These small particles make their way to the lining of the lung (pleura), causing irritation and eventually mutations, which can lead to the development of cancerous cells and tumors. When asbestos particles are swallowed, irritation of the stomach occurs, which can also lead to development of cancer.

Asbestos is banned in many countries, but due to its broad usage in the past, there remains a dangerous legacy in older buildings where it may still be present. Any refurbishment or demolition of buildings containing asbestos must be carefully planned, and completed by specially-trained workers with appropriate breathing and safety equipment.

In the United States, law was passed to ban the material outright in 1989, however this was overturned in 1991. As a result, there remain instances in which asbestos can be lawfully used.

Who is at risk from developing mesothelioma?

Individuals who have worked in shipbuilding, construction, factories, power stations, and with automobiles are considered to have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma. This is because asbestos was used extensively in these industries.

As discussed above, there is also a significant risk to anyone who has had exposure to the clothing and equipment of people working with asbestos. This may apply to family members, friends, and colleagues who did not work directly with the substance.

What are the treatment options for mesothelioma?

In most cases of mesothelioma, symptoms tend not to be present until the disease has progressed to an advanced stage. Unfortunately, treatment options at this stage are limited, and the goal will be to prolong life as much as possible, whilst minimizing the patient’s discomfort. Palliative care will be arranged in these instances. There are some cases in which surgical interventions may be possible, usually when the disease is diagnosed at an earlier stage, however the prognosis remains poor; 50% of patients will survive at least one year post-diagnosis, whilst only 10% will survive to five years.