What is it?
Mesothelioma is an asbestos-related cancer affecting the linings of the lungs or abdomen. It is usually caused by exposure to asbestos dust - when a person breathes in asbestos fibres, these can work their way into the pleura, which is the membrane which protects the lungs from damage by the ribs during the act of breathing. The asbestos fibres can damage the pleura’s cells and can cause changes which, it is thought, make them into cancerous cells.
Around 200 people in Scotland are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year.
What causes it?
Mesothelioma can be caused by relatively low exposure to asbestos dust but the higher the level of exposure, the higher the risk of developing mesothelioma.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of pleural mesothelioma are:
- Pain in the lower back or the side of the chest
- Shortness of breath
- Sweating and high temperatures
- A persistent cough
- Losing more than 10% of your weight when not dieting
- Difficulty swallowing
- A hoarse or husky voice
- Some people have changes in the shape of their fingers and nails called finger clubbing, but this is not common.
How Is It Diagnosed
Mesothelioma is most often diagnosed after a person goes to a doctor because of symptoms. If there is a reason to suspect you might have mesothelioma, your doctor will use one or more tests to find out.
Imaging Tests (X-Ray, CT, PET, MRI)
Imaging tests are used to attain better images of the inside of the body. Tests like, x-rays, CT scans, PET scans and MRIs, commonly used to diagnose mesothelioma.
Blood Marker Biopsy
Doctors use a variety of blood tests in order to determine if cancer is present in patients. Doctors can also analyze the type of cancer and what treatment options work best for each patient.
A biopsy is a tissue or fluid sample taken from a tumour or its surrounding area. These samples are examined under a microscope to determine cell type and is the only way to definitively diagnose mesothelioma.
Unfortunately mesothelioma can be very difficult to treat as it is often found when it is advanced. Nearly all treatment is aimed at controlling the mesothelioma for as long as possible and keeping symptoms under control.
It is not unusual for patients to have chemotherapy treatment to shrink the tumour and reduce symptoms. Radiotherapy may also shrink the cancer and control symptoms.
Chemotherapy is an aggressive mesothelioma treatment effective in reducing tumours and killing cancer cells of pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma with powerful drugs, but it’s accompanied by side effects including hair loss, vomiting and fever.
Chemotherapy is recognized as one of the few treatment options that can be effective for mesothelioma patients. Chemotherapy cannot cure mesothelioma, but depending on the severity of the cancer, it can alleviate symptoms, improve quality of life and prolong survival.
Radiotherapy is one of the main types of treatment options for mesothelioma. Using targeted radiation an oncologist can kill cancer cells and shrink tumours, generally with less side effects than chemotherapy. This treatment can be used in all stages.
Although unable to eliminate or cure the cancer, radiation has been most effective as a way to relieve some of the pain that accompanies mesothelioma. It can be used for a variety of reasons to treat patients in different stages of cancer.
Surgery for mesothelioma may be done to try to cure the cancer or to relieve (palliate) pain and other symptoms caused by the tumour.
Surgery to try to cure the cancer is known as potentially curative surgery. This type of surgery may be an option if you are in otherwise good health and the cancer has not spread too far to be removed completely. Unfortunately, even when the surgeon can remove all of the cancer that can be seen, some cancer cells are often left behind. These cells can grow and divide, causing the cancer to come back after surgery. Because of this, not all doctors agree on the exact role of surgery. In most cases it is not likely to cure you but may extend your life. Still, potentially curative surgery is being done in some major cancer centres, and a small number of patients who have had the surgery have had long remissions of their disease.
Palliative surgery may be an option if the tumour has already spread beyond where it started and is difficult to remove completely, or if you are too ill for a more extensive operation. The goal of this surgery is to relieve or prevent symptoms, as opposed to trying to cure the cancer.