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Home > Types of mesothelioma > Malignant mesothelioma

Malignant mesothelioma

The most widespread type of mesothelioma is malignant mesothelioma.

This is cancer of the thin membranes that surround the lungs and abdominal organs. Malignant mesothelioma occurs much more commmonly in the chest than in the abdomen.

The main cause for malignant mesothelioma is contact with asbestos. When a person breathes in asbestos fibers, they can travel to the ends of the small air passages and reach the lining of the lungs. After time, they can damage the mesothelial cells (the lining of the lung cells). If swallowed, these fibers can reach the lining of the abdominal cavity where they play a part in causing peritoneal mesothelioma.

If you have mesothelioma, you were most likely exposed to asbestos. Many asbestos manufacturers and distributors knew for decades that asbestos was hazardous, yet made a business decision not to warn people of those hazards. As a result, you may have a right of recovery against those manufacturers, which can help defray the costs of treatment and provide compensation for your pain and suffering.

Malignant mesothelioma is a diffuse tumor that affects men more frequently than women. Sustained exposure to asbestos is the? biggest risk factor. It can take 20 to 50 years or even longer between exposure to asbestos and onset of the disease.

A 2002 study showed that a chemotherapy regimen of two drugs -- cisplatin and pemetrexed -- appears promising in improving survival and decreasing symptoms. Other new chemotherapy drugs and combinations of drugs are gradually improving the treatment of malignant mesothelioma. Consider participating in a clinical trial (test of new treatments), which may give you additional treatment options.

About 90% of people who are diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma have chest pain or shortness of breath as the first symptoms of the disease. These symptoms can be caused either by the cancer itself, which irritates nerve cells in nearby tissues, or by a collection of fluid between the two layers of the pleura in the chest. This collection of fluid is called a pleural effusion. People with mesothelioma that develops in the abdominal lining can have abdominal pain and swelling caused by an accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity. Other possible symptoms include cough, fatigue and unexplained weight loss.

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and your medical history before examining you. Tests usually are needed because the more common symptoms of chest pain and shortness of breath may come from many causes. These tests include an electrocardiogram (EKG), a chest or abdominal X-ray, depending on your symptoms and your physical exam. If these tests show any abnormalities of the lungs or pleura, you will need a computed tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. These imaging studies allow the physician to determine the size and location of any tumor in the chest or abdomen.

If you have fluid in your chest or abdomen, a thin needle may be used to remove a small sample of the fluid for examination. This procedure, called fine-needle aspiration, also may be used to drain the fluid to relieve symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath. Occasionally, mesothelioma can be diagnosed from this fluid sample alone, but usually a tissue sample (biopsy) will have to be taken, too.

The tissue sample can be obtained with procedures called a thoracoscopy or video-assisted thoracoscopy (VAT) for a pleural tumor or with a procedure called laparoscopy for an abdominal tumor. In both procedures, a tubelike instrument inserted through a small incision allows the physician to see the tumor and collect a tissue sample. You also may need a procedure called a bronchoscopy or a mediastinoscopy so the doctor can look for masses in the lung airways caused by other tumors or can remove tissue samples from lymph nodes.

Once your doctor is certain you have malignant mesothelioma, the next step is to determine how far the tumor has spread, which will classify the cancer into one of four stages. This is done with imaging studies, such as CT and MRI. In stage I, the tumor is limited to the pleural lining on one side of the chest without any signs of having spread. If the disease returns after being treated successfully, it is called recurrent mesothelioma.

To reduce your risk of malignant mesothelioma, you should avoid exposure to asbestos. Because there is no safe level of asbestos exposure, any asbestos exposure is too much. In your home, especially if it is an older home, have an expert check for areas of exposed asbestos-containing insulation or other areas of deteriorating asbestos. These areas must be removed or safely sealed off professionally. Workers who routinely deal with asbestos-containing materials should use approved measures to limit their exposure and to keep from bringing asbestos dust home on their clothing.

Malignant mesothelioma is difficult to treat. The cancer can spread easily to nearby organs. If the tumor has spread, it is nearly impossible to remove the entire tumor surgically. In addition, it has been difficult to test the effectiveness of different treatments because there are relatively few cases of malignant mesothelioma.

People exposed to asbestos for a long time or exposed to high levels have an increased risk of developing malignant mesothelioma, but even people exposed for a very short time can develop this disease. The disease develops at least 15 years (typically 20 to 40 years) after exposure to asbestos. People usually are diagnosed with this disease between ages 50 to 70. More men than women get this cancer, probably because men are more likely to have worked in the industries that use asbestos.

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