The term mesothelioma defines a rare form of cancer that affects the mesothelium, a protective membrane covering most of the internal organs. The mesothelium is named differently depending on the organ it covers: peritoneum (lining the organs inside the abdominal cavity), pleura (covering the lungs), pericardium (lining and protecting the heart), tunica vaginalis (surrounding the male internal reproductive organs) or tunica serosa uteri (lining the internal reproductive organs in women).
Besides protecting the organs it covers, this membrane also produces a lubricating fluid, released between the two layers of the meshotelium. Mesothelioma occurs mainly in people working in toxic environments, with high concentration of asbestos. When toxic fibers of this mineral are ingested or inhaled, they become lodged in organs and cavities, leading to inflammatory processes and infections. They usually generate high cellular damage and overtime they begin to divide uncontrollably. As a consequence, the two layers of the mesothelium become thicker and the fluid between them begins to buildup.
In most of the patients it takes up to 50 years after asbestos exposure for mesothelioma symptoms to develop. Considering the fact that in early stages this form of cancer is asymptomatic, mesothelioma prognosis depends on how advanced the disease is when diagnosed. Receiving a diagnosis during the first stages of the illness improves the patient’s chances of positively responding to treatment. On the other hand, if the mesothelioma is diagnosed once it reached the advanced stages, healing options are really limited and often, prognosis is compromised.
Pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of cancer and it usually manifests through persistent dry cough, dysphagia (difficulties in swallowing), dyphnea (shortness of breath), night sweats and fever, fatigue and persistent pain in the chest area. In this type of mesothelioma, the respiratory function is the most affected.
Peritoneal mesothelioma can be recognized by symptoms like unexplained weight loss, accentuated anemia, fatigue, frequent diarrhea or constipation episodes, abdominal pain, lumps and swelling, nausea and vomiting. Less frequent than this type of mesothelioma, pericardial cancer leads to heart palpitations and chest pain, dyspnea, fever and generalized fatigue. Testicular mesothelioma is extremely rare, the reduced number of cases known making it harder to establish the typical symptoms. The only common sign reported in literature is the appearance of testicular lumps, which may be painful in some patients.
Diagnosis is usually based on the patient’s medical history, a physical examination and – in case mesothelioma symptoms are present, additional tests may be required – usually, X-rays, CT, MRI or PET scans. If the result of these tests is positive and cancer is identified, the physician may also order a biopsy, in order to establish if the mesothelioma is benign or malignant.
As for the treatment, the most common alternatives are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Surgery is used to remove the affected tissues and provide relief from typical symptoms. Radiation therapy kills the existing cancer cells and prevents the growth of new ones, while chemotherapy uses medication to target the cells responsible of mesothelioma development.