Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that is caused by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a naturally occurring group of minerals that was classified as a known carcinogen in the 1970s by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Although the U.S. government took steps to regulate asbestos in the late 1970s, this carcinogen had already been vastly used in materials, construction and consumer goods.
Unfortunately, widespread exposure to asbestos has resulted in an average of 3,128 new cases of mesothelioma being diagnosed in the U.S. each year (source: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, learn more about the diagnosis, prognosis, treatment options and available compensation.
Mesothelioma Facts and Figures
Mesothelioma is a tumor of the mesothelial tissue, or the layer of tissue that lines or encases the body’s organs. This includes the membrane around the lungs (the pleura), the abdominal cavity (the peritoneum), the protective sac around the heart (the pericardium) and tissues lining the pelvis (including the tunica vaginalis surrounding the testes).
Mesothelioma can be cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous. According to data from 1999 to 2018, 62,550 new cases of malignant mesothelioma were diagnosed – equating to an average of 3,128 new cases per year. Males are more likely than females to be diagnosed with mesothelioma. Mesothelioma of the pleura is the most common type, accounting for about 82 percent of all mesothelioma patients.
Is Mesothelioma Cancer Fatal?
Sadly, mesothelioma is a deadly form of cancer. It is an aggressive and fatal type of terminal cancer that does not have a cure. Patients typically pass away from mesothelioma within 12 to 21 months of their diagnosis. However, treatments are available that could extend a patient’s life expectancy and improve his or her prognosis. With treatment, patients have lived for 10 years and longer after being diagnosed with mesothelioma.
What Causes Mesothelioma?
The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Asbestos fibers and particles are often microscopic. They can float on dust and easily become airborne, resulting in them being inhaled or ingested. Once asbestos particles enter the body, they may accumulate and become lodged in the mesothelial tissues. They can remain there for many years, causing irritation and scar tissue.
Over time – anywhere from 20-60+ years – the irritation caused by asbestos fibers lodged in the lungs, abdominal cavity or other parts of the body can result in tumors. If the cells of the tumor are cancerous, the patient has a rare and deadly disease known as malignant mesothelioma. Asbestos can also lead to other respiratory illnesses and diseases.
Four Types of Mesothelioma
There are four types of mesothelioma based on where the cancer develops. Each type comes with unique signs and symptoms, as well as different treatment options and prognoses for patients.
Understanding your type of mesothelioma is one of the first steps toward creating a treatment plan and mapping out your future.
The four types of Mesothelioma are:
- Pleural mesothelioma – caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. This type targets the layer of tissue that covers the lungs and can result in a variety of respiratory problems for the patient.
- Peritoneal mesothelioma – caused by ingesting asbestos. This type affects the tissues surrounding the abdominal cavity and can cause a range of stomach and gastrointestinal issues.
- Pericardial mesothelioma – this type targets the sac surrounding the heart. Research and information into how this type of mesothelioma is caused, treatments and life expectancies are limited as it is exceedingly rare. According to the National Library of Medicine, there are approximately 200 documented cases of pericardial mesothelioma.
- Testicular mesothelioma – in rare cases, mesothelioma can also form in the membrane that surrounds the testes. Little is known about this type of mesothelioma, as there are fewer than 300 cases reported in medical literature, according to the data available.
According to data collected by the CDC, the vast majority of mesothelioma cases diagnosed in the last 20 years are pleural mesothelioma (82.1 percent), followed by peritoneal (9.9 percent). There are also different types of mesothelioma cells: sarcomatoid, epithelial and biphasic. Sarcomatoid are the most common and easiest to treat. Epithelial cells are less common and more aggressive. Biphasic is a mixture of both sarcomatoid and epithelial cells. The type of mesothelioma can determine a patient’s prognosis.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Mesothelioma?
There are no immediate symptoms from inhaling or ingesting asbestos. It can take several decades for asbestos exposure to turn into mesothelioma or other illnesses, such as asbestosis or lung cancer. When a patient does experience symptoms of mesothelioma, they can vary based on the type and location of the cancer, as well as the stage at the time of diagnosis.
Known signs of pleural mesothelioma include:
- A dry cough that won’t go away
- Coughing up blood or blood in the sputum
- A feeling of tightness in the chest
- Trouble breathing or expanding the chest
- Shortness of breath, even from light exercise
- Hoarseness or difficulty swallowing
- Chest pain, especially under the ribcage
- Pain in the lower back
- Lumps felt beneath the skin on your chest
- Chronic drowsiness or fatigue
- Unexplained lack of appetite or weight loss
- Swelling of the face or neck
- Clubbing of the fingertips or toes (where the tips grow wider)
If asbestos exposure has led to cancer in the abdominal cavity, signs and symptoms may include:
- Pain in the stomach or abdomen
- Abdominal swelling, bloating or distention
- Fluid accumulation in the abdomen
- Nausea or vomiting
- Changes in bowel movements
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Unexplained weight loss
- Fever or night sweats
Pericardial mesothelioma symptoms can include an irregular heartbeat, heart murmur, chest pain and shortness of breath. Testicular mesothelioma may cause painless lumps in the testes, swollen testicles, fluid buildup in the scrotum and pain in the testicles. If you have symptoms of any type of mesothelioma, connect with your doctor or a mesothelioma medical expert for medical tests to diagnose or rule out this type of cancer.
When a patient presents symptoms of mesothelioma and has a history of working with or around asbestos, diagnosis typically begins with a physical examination. The doctor or mesothelioma specialist will review the patient’s medical history, ask if the patient may have been exposed to asbestos and assess the patient’s physical state.
A blood test may then be used to rule out other illnesses, although this alone cannot confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis. The next step is taking an x-ray of the patient’s chest. A doctor can use x-rays, MRIs and CT scans to search for signs of lung disease or lung cancer, including tumors in the pleura and other mesothelial tissues.
Confirming that lung disease is from asbestos requires a tissue biopsy. Depending on the doctor, the patient may be referred to an oncologist or mesothelioma specialist at this stage. The specialist will obtain a tissue sample to test it at a lab for cancer cells. A pathologist examining the tissue sample under a microscope is the only way to confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis.
Stages of Mesothelioma
When making a diagnosis, an oncologist will confirm the type of mesothelioma and the location of the tumor(s). Then, the doctor will classify the mesothelioma into a stage at the time of diagnosis. Cancer stages are important, as malignant cells spread throughout the body over time (metastasize), making cancer more difficult to treat in later stages. There are four different stages of mesothelioma.
In stage I, the cancer cells are localized and have not spread to any other part of the body. Although this is the best stage for a cancer diagnosis, it is often difficult to catch mesothelioma this early, as the symptoms may not yet be noticeable.
Stage II mesothelioma means that the cancer has spread to another location. For example, stage II pleural mesothelioma often means the cancer has spread to one lung, the lymph nodes and possibly the diaphragm.
At stage III, mesothelioma has continued to spread to nearby tissues. With pleural mesothelioma, this may mean the chest wall, chest cavity and abdomen. A patient will begin to notice more significant symptoms associated with mesothelioma in stage III.
Stage IV is the most severe mesothelioma diagnosis. At this point, the cancer has spread throughout a large percentage of the body, including all lymph nodes, multiple organs, the bones and the chest. Treatment options become limited at stage IV.
The stage of mesothelioma at the time of diagnosis can inform a patient’s prognosis and treatment options, as reported by the American Cancer Society. In general, earlier stages at the time of diagnosis correspond to a better prognosis. A patient with stage II or III mesothelioma may be eligible for surgery, for example, while a patient’s cancer at stage IV might have spread too much to make surgery a viable option.
Are There Treatments for Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma may not have a cure, but treatments are available to help patients relieve uncomfortable symptoms and enjoy a better quality of life. Treatments may also have the power to improve a patient’s lifespan, in some cases. When someone is diagnosed with mesothelioma, he or she is sent to a mesothelioma expert or oncologist who specializes in this type of cancer for treatment. Most mesothelioma patients receive a multimodal treatment plan, meaning more than one type of treatment.
Options often include:
- Surgery can be used to cut out and remove tumors and cancer tissue. Surgery for pleural mesothelioma often includes an extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP) or pleurectomy and decortication (P/D).
- Chemotherapy is the administration of powerful chemicals to shrink or kill cancer cells. It may involve the patient taking a pill and/or receiving chemotherapy medication through the veins with an IV.
- Radiation therapy is a common follow-up to chemotherapy, which also kills cancer cells. It uses high-energy rays (such as x-rays) to shrink or kill cancer cells rather than drugs or chemicals.
- Other therapies in a mesothelioma patient’s treatment plan may also involve targeted therapies, which use drugs to stop the spread of cancer cells based on the type of cancer.
- Immunotherapy is also common to help boost the patient’s immune system.
- Palliative care may be necessary if nothing more can be done for a patient, he or she needs end-of-life care. These are noncurative treatments that can help alleviate symptoms of mesothelioma to increase a patient’s comfort, such as relieving pressure on the lungs by treating pleural effusion (a buildup of liquid in the chest cavity).
In addition to established treatment options, there are ongoing clinical trials that a patient may be eligible to join. Clinical trials test the latest medications and therapies from new medical research on patients to experiment with their effectiveness. New treatments are continuously being developed as more research is done on mesothelioma, so talk to your doctor about your options.
What Is the Life Expectancy for Someone With Mesothelioma?
The life expectancy for a mesothelioma patient is currently an average of 12 to 21 months with treatment, according to the National Library of Medicine. However, patients have been known to live many years past their life expectancies. How long a patient lives after being diagnosed with mesothelioma depends on the type of cancer, the location, the cancer stage and available treatment options, as well as the patient’s age and overall health.
The median life expectancy with pleural mesothelioma is about one year. The one-year survival rate for pleural mesothelioma (the percentage of patients who survive at least one year after diagnosis) is around 75 percent. The median survival rate of patients with peritoneal mesothelioma is about 31 months.
Due to its location close to the heart (making surgery more challenging), pericardial mesothelioma has a life expectancy of two to six months, on average. In the limited number of documented testicular mesothelioma cases, the average life expectancy is 1.7 years. However, patients have been known to live longer with surgery.
Are You Entitled to Compensation for Mesothelioma?
Being diagnosed with mesothelioma may entitle you to financial compensation through an insurance claim or civil lawsuit. You may be eligible for compensation through an asbestos trust fund, a lawsuit against an employer or product manufacturer, a workers’ compensation claim, a veterans’ claim, or other sources. At Bailey & Glasser, LLP, we understand how devastating it is to find out that you or a loved one has mesothelioma. Our lawyers will connect you to vital information, support and legal resources to help you move forward.