Friday, October 1, 2010

The Harsh Truth About Mesothelioma

By Alex Johnson (Guest blogger)

Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that affects the mesothelium, a membrane lining that surrounds the internal organs. It is known to be caused by exposure and inhalation of asbestos particles or fibers. Even though the National Cancer Institute classified mesothelioma as a “relatively rare” form of cancer with about 2,000 cases diagnosed a year, the number of patients infected with mesothelioma has climbed steadily in the past 20 years.

There are four locations of the body that the cancerous cells can potentially infect, which are the pleura, the pertorium, the pericardium and tunica vaginalis testis or tunica serosa uteri. Pleura affects the lining around the lungs and chest walls, the peritorium affects the lining around the abdominal cavity, the pericardium affects the lining surrounding the heart and the tunica vaginalis affects the reproductive organ of male patients while the tunica serosa uteri affects the reproductive organ of female patients.

The cancer grows in between the two layers of membrane lining that surrounds the specific organs and can spread to surrounding tissues and cells if it is not diagnosed earlier.

The mesothelioma symptoms can vary depending on the location of the affected area; and they tend to have a rather latent effect where visible symptoms only appear between 30 to 50 years after the patient’s exposure to asbestos.

Pleura mesothelioma can cause shortness of breath, pain around the chest wall, fatigue, wheezing, coughing and hoarseness around the throat. Sometimes, blood can be found in the fluid that is coughed up. Patients who suffer from severe pleura mesothelioma may develop tumor or swelling and their lungs may collapse causing acute shortness of breath and chest pain.

Peritoneal mesothelioma, which affects the abdominal cavity, can cause weight loss, abdominal pain, bowel obstruction, swelling caused by fluid buildup in the abdomen, fatigue and fever. If the cancer has spread to other areas of the body, the patient may experience trouble swallowing, pain and swelling of the face and neck.

Patients who suffer from severe mesothelioma may develop abnormal blood clots in the vein or in the arteries of the lungs, serious bleeding in several body organs, jaundice or the yellowing of the eyes and skin, low blood sugar level and severe ascites, which is the accumulation of fluid in the abdomen that causes abdominal heaviness and shortness of breath.


Mesothelioma is normally hard to detect as symptoms are similar to other ailment causes. However, patients who have been exposed to asbestos some time in their lives and experience the above symptoms should seek medical consultation immediately.

The presence of Mesothelioma can be detected with imaging tests such as chest x-ray, CT scan, PET scan and MRI scan. Chest x-ray is used to detect growth around the heart, lungs and chest while the CT scan and MRI scan provide a detailed imaging of the body. The scan tests serve to detect for any abnormal growth and if there is, to identify the affected area. PET scan is often conducted to detect the presence of cancer cells through glucose deposits; it can also identify structural changes in tissues or organs caused by the cancer.

If the scan results are found to be positive for cancer, the doctor would proceed to perform biopsy tests such as fine needle aspiration, thoracoscopy, bronchoscopy, laparoscopy or mediastinoscopy. Biopsy tests involve the extraction of fluid from the affected area for further tests. Fine needle aspiration is the extraction of fluid along the lungs using a fine long needle, whereas thoracoscopy, bronchoscopy, laparoscopy and mediastinoscopy involve the extraction of fluid from the chest wall, trachea walls, abdomen areas and the respiratory organs respectively.

Mesothelioma is considered to be ‘localized’ if the cancer is contained within the membrane lining surface but it becomes more serious if spread to other parts of the body such as the lungs, chest walls, abdominal organs or the lymph nodes. Treatment for mesothelioma varies depending on the stage of the cancer as well as the location of the affected area.