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How Mesothelioma Affects Your Body

Mesothelioma tumors and cancer treatments affect the body and mind. Lifestyle changes, a strong support system and expert medical care help people cope and overcome these effects.

Mesothelioma cancer is caused by asbestos exposure. Around 3,000 people are diagnosed in the U.S. every year. Most of them were exposed on the job.

It may develop in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, heart and testicles. Around 75 percent of cases form around the lungs and roughly 20 percent around the abdomen. It rarely develops in the lining of the heart or testicles.

Chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery are the go-to treatments for mesothelioma. They manage cancer growth, reduce symptoms and help people live longer.

People with early-stage cancer tumors who undergo surgery often live the longest. Late-stage patients are living longer because of clinical trials testing immunotherapies and other new treatments.

These helpful treatments come with side effects such as chemo brain, fatigue, pain, weight loss and difficulty sleeping. Most side effects are temporary and controllable with medication and lifestyle changes.

Understanding what to expect helps you prepare for treatment and recovery. Proper resources and information from qualified experts help you understand your options and develop a plan of action.

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Receiving a Mesothelioma Diagnosis

The diagnostic process begins when troublesome symptoms need medical attention. Warning signs of pleural mesothelioma, which forms around the lungs, include difficulty breathing, coughing and chest pain.

Abdominal bloating, weight loss and digestive issues precede diagnosis of peritoneal mesothelioma, which develops around the abdomen.

X-rays, CT scans and PET scans are the first steps toward identifying location and size of tumors. Afterward, tissue samples, called biopsies, are taken to confirm the kind of cancer cells in the tumors.

These tests help doctors determine a cancer’s stage. Mesothelioma has four stages of growth. Early-stage patients often qualify for surgery. Late-stage patients qualify for chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy clinical trials.

Physical Effects of Mesothelioma

Once inside the body, asbestos has the potential to slowly damage DNA in ways that cause a cell to become cancerous. Once a cell turns cancerous, it replicates uncontrollably, resulting in a buildup of cells that slowly forms into a tumor.

Mesothelioma is unique in the way it grows. Most tumors form as a singular mass. But mesothelioma tumors more commonly develop as numerous small nodules on the lining of the lungs or abdomen.

The nodules eventually grow and merge, forming a sheath-like tumor often compared to a fruit rind. As the cancer progresses, the tumor envelopes vital organs and causes physical effects such as pain or difficulty breathing.

Tumors originating in the lung lining will first affect pulmonary health, while those developing in the abdominal lining will first affect the digestive system.

Physical signs of mesothelioma usually arise in later stages of development. It is rare for stage I or II mesothelioma to cause noticeable symptoms.

Symptoms of Mesothelioma by Type

Once the cancer has reached the final stage of development, when metastasis (distant spreading) occurs, new symptoms might develop. Late-stage mesothelioma patients may experience difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, facial nerve damage, low blood sugar and nerve pain in the arm.

Different types of mesothelioma cause different symptoms. Pleural mesothelioma forms within the lung lining and primarily causes pulmonary symptoms. Peritoneal mesothelioma originates within the abdominal lining and causes digestive symptoms.

Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Dry cough
  • Chest pains
  • Fatigue
  • Faint or harsh breathing sounds
  • Shortness of breath
  • Reduced lung expansion
  • Pleural effusion
  • Weight loss

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal distension
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal swelling or tenderness
  • Hernias
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling full
  • Fluid buildup

Pericardial Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Heart palpitations
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Murmurs
  • Chest pain
  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Shortness of breath when lying flat
  • Fatigue

Side Effects of Mesothelioma Treatment

Treatment of mesothelioma can physically affect the body in significant ways depending on the therapies used. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy all cause physical side effects are controlled with medication, diet, exercise and other lifestyle choices.

Surgery

  • Pain at incision site
  • Swelling, drainage or infection at incision site
  • Bleeding at incision site
  • Pain in area of surgery
  • Fatigue
  • Cardiac complications

Chemotherapy

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea & vomiting
  • Diarrhea & constipation
  • Mouth sores
  • Hair loss
  • Reduced blood counts

Radiation Therapy

  • Skin changes & irritation
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Bladder irritation
  • Difficulty swallowing

Support Group for Patients and Families

You are not alone in your fight against mesothelioma. Learn how to cope with the mental effects of mesothelioma by joining our monthly online support group hosted by our licensed mental health counselor and registered nurse.

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Dana NolanLicensed Mental Health Counselor

Mental Effects of Mesothelioma

A mesothelioma diagnosis can greatly impact a person mentally and emotionally. Hearing that your life might get cut short by cancer affects your mental health. It’s important to get support, know how to recognize signs of chemo brain and avoid isolation.

  • Emotional Support

    It is normal for people with mesothelioma to experience a range of emotional responses such as feelings of fear, sadness, anger, confusion, stress and anxiety.

    Building a support system of family, friends and health care professionals will help you cope. You may consider reaching out to cancer support groups, church and spiritual groups or online support communities. One-on-one counseling is often available at cancer treatment centers. These counselors have the most experience helping people process the emotions and challenges posed by that cancer.

  • Chemo Brain

    Chemotherapy can particularly affect cognitive function, which may be temporary or may last for several years after therapy. The effects are referred to as “chemo brain,” and may include:

    • Challenges with multitasking
    • Slow or foggy thought processing
    • Difficulty recalling known information such as names, important dates and common words

    If you’re noticing symptoms of chemo brain, be sure to inform your doctor right away. There are cognitive training tools that patients can use to reduce the effects of chemo brain. These tools help people to improve thought processing, increase memory and reduce mental fogginess.

  • Isolation

    Since mesothelioma is a relatively rare cancer, you may not know anyone else facing this cancer. This factor leaves many people with mesothelioma feeling alone or they’re the only person who understands what they’re going through. This feeling is normal, and there are things you can do to address these emotions. Try joining a cancer support group, reaching out to a trusted friend and talking with a counselor.

How Can Mesothelioma Patients Extend Their Life Span?

There are steps people with mesothelioma can take to extend life expectancy.

The first step is finding a doctor who specializes in your type of mesothelioma. Working with a mesothelioma specialist at a cancer treatment center will get you access to the latest treatments, therapeutic approaches and a multidisciplinary health care team.

In addition to electing the support of a specialized health care team, there are things you can do to improve your overall health and well-being. Improving your diet and exercising can boost health before, during and after cancer treatment. Complementary and alternative therapies, such as meditation, yoga and counseling, also can enhance well-being.

  • Treatments & Doctors

    Thanks to recent advancements in cancer treatment, many people with mesothelioma are qualifying for aggressive therapies more often than in the past. For example, several years ago, few stage III patients qualified for surgery like they do today.

    Chemotherapy is the most commonly used treatment to control mesothelioma. Radiation therapy is used on some patients to shrink tumors. Surgery removes tumors that haven’t spread to distant locations in the body.

    Seeking out a mesothelioma specialist can help you get the best treatments. Doctors who specialize in mesothelioma have a pulse on the latest clinical trials and treatments. They work at comprehensive cancer centers that conduct such trials and therapies.

    More clinical trials for mesothelioma exist today than a decade ago. These trials give mesothelioma patients the opportunity to try innovative treatments and new combinations of therapies. Some of the patients in these studies are living years beyond their prognosis.

    Some of the therapies tested in clinical trials include immunotherapy, genetic therapy, targeted drugs and new combinations of traditional therapies. Each clinical trial is different and has unique participation requirements. For example, some trials specifically seek mesothelioma patients who’ve already tried first-line chemotherapy, whereas others look for patients who’ve never tried chemotherapy.

    Learn About Top Mesothelioma Specialists
  • Improving Overall Health

    Making improvements to your overall health may positively impact your prognosis. The most common improvements survivors make include:

    • Improving diet
    • Exercising
    • Joining a support group
    • Making time for self-care

    Many cancer centers employ registered dietitians to help you create meal plans tailored to your diagnosis. Ask your doctor if a dietitian is available at your treatment facility.

    Physical trainers are often available through cancer centers. They can teach you simple and effective exercises that will help you maintain energy and muscle mass throughout cancer treatment.

    Many cancer centers staff mental health counselors to help patients and families process emotional aspects of the cancer experience. Meeting with a counselor can equip patients with tools that help them cope better.

    Learn How to Improve Your Overall Health
  • Complementary Therapies

    Long-term mesothelioma survivors often integrate complementary therapies into their treatment plan. These therapies complement traditional cancer treatment and help treat the whole patient, not just the cancer. Complementary therapies are commonly used to reduce symptoms and side effects.

    Make sure to discuss any complementary therapy with your oncologist. Certain therapies can diminish effectiveness of cancer treatments. Get approval from your oncologist first.

    • Mind-body therapies, such as qigong, tai chi, yoga and meditation, are helpful at reducing stress, lessening depression and improving mood.
    • Body-based therapies, such as chiropractic care, massage and TENS therapy, are often effective at treating pain and stress.
    • Complete healing systems, including traditional Chinese medicine and ayurvedic medicine, offer unique therapies, such as acupuncture, to address a range of cancer-related issues.
    • Herbal medicine offers a variety of natural remedies to ease mesothelioma symptoms and reduce side effects of cancer treatment.
    Learn About Alternative Treatment Options

Find a Mesothelioma Doctor near You

Our Patient Advocates have relationships with doctors and treatment centers across the country. Let us connect you with a top mesothelioma doctor near you who can manage your symptoms and side effects.

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Resources for Patients & Families

In addition to helping people access the nation’s best mesothelioma doctors and cancer centers, we’re here to simplify things for you and your family. Whether coordinating with doctors, applying for travel grants or connecting you to clinical trials, our patient advocates are here to help.

All of our resources are free and patient advocates are available 24/7.

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