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Mesothelioma

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 to asbestos on the job.

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

Mesothelioma may develop in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, heart or testicles. Around 75 percent of cases form around the lungs and roughly 20 percent in 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 tumors who undergo surgery often live the longest. Late-stage patients are living longer because of clinical trials testing immunotherapies and other new treatments. Understanding what to expect helps you prepare for treatment and recovery.

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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 the diagnosis of peritoneal mesothelioma, which develops in the abdomen.

X-rays, CT scans and PET scans are the first steps toward identifying the 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 may qualify for chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy.

Physical Effects of Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is unique in the way it grows. Most cancer tumors form as a singular mass. But mesothelioma tumors 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. This 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 1 or 2 mesothelioma to cause noticeable symptoms.

In the final stage of cancer development, metastasis (distant spreading) occurs. Late-stage mesothelioma patients may experience difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, facial nerve damage, low blood sugar and nerve pain in the arms.

Symptoms of Mesothelioma by Type

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. Pericardial mesothelioma, an extremely rare form of the cancer, originates on the heart sac and can lead to serious cardiac symptoms.

Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Dry cough
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight loss

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms

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

Pericardial Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Fatigue

Side Effects of Mesothelioma Treatment

Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy for mesothelioma all cause physical side effects. These effects can be controlled with medication, diet, exercise and other lifestyle choices.

Surgery

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

Chemotherapy

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea & vomiting
  • Mouth sores
  • Hair loss
  • Reduced blood-cell counts

Radiation Therapy

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

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Dana NolanLicensed Mental Health Counselor

Mental Effects of Mesothelioma

A mesothelioma diagnosis impacts a person mentally and emotionally. Hearing your life might get cut short by cancer affects your mental health. It’s important to reach out for emotional support, know how to recognize signs of chemo brain, and avoid social isolation.

  • Intense Emotions

    It is normal for people with mesothelioma to experience a range of feelings such as fear, sadness, anger, confusion, stress and anxiety. Building a support system of family, friends and health care professionals will help you cope.

    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. The counselors there have the most experience helping people work through the challenges posed by cancer.

  • Chemo Brain

    Cancer and chemotherapy can affect cognitive function. It 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 remembering names,dates and words

    If you notice 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.

  • Social Isolation

    Since mesothelioma is a rare cancer, you may not know anyone else who has faced it. This factor leaves many people with mesothelioma feeling alone or like no one understands what they’re going through.

    These feelings are normal, and there are things you can do to address them. Try joining a cancer support group, reaching out to a trusted friend and talking with a counselor. Be open with your loved ones and caregivers about your hopes and fears, and listen to theirs in return.

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. Going to a specialized cancer treatment center will get you access to a multidisciplinary health care team who can provide the latest treatments.

There are also things you can do on your own to improve your overall health and well-being. Improving your diet and exercising can boost health before, during and after cancer treatment. Complementary therapies such as meditation, yoga and massage can enhance well-being as well.

  • Treatments & Doctors

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

    Thanks to advances in cancer treatment, people with mesothelioma qualify for aggressive therapies more often than in the past. There are also more clinical trials for mesothelioma than ever before.

    Clinical trials give mesothelioma patients the opportunity to try innovative treatments and new combinations of therapies. Some of the patients in these studies live years beyond their prognosis.

    Therapies tested in clinical trials include immunotherapy, gene therapy and new combinations of conventional therapies. Some trials seek mesothelioma patients who’ve already tried standard first-line treatment, whereas others look for patients who’ve never had chemotherapy.

  • 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. Physical trainers are often available through cancer centers as well. They can teach you simple 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 the emotional aspects of the cancer experience. A counselor can equip patients with tools that help them cope better.

  • Complementary Therapies

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

    However, certain complementary therapies can diminish the effectiveness of cancer treatments. Get approval from your oncologist before beginning any complementary or alternative therapy.

    • Mind-Body Therapies: Qigong, tai chi, yoga and meditation are helpful for reducing stress and improving mood.
    • Body-Based Therapies: Chiropractic care, massage and TENS therapy are often effective for treating pain and stress.
    • Complete Healing Systems: Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine offer unique methods, such as acupuncture, to address a range of issues.
    • Herbal Medicine: Various natural remedies can ease mesothelioma symptoms and side effects of cancer treatment.

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Additional Resources

Free Mesothelioma Information Guide Find a Top Mesothelioma Doctor Near You Get Help Paying for Treatment & More
Written By Vanessa Blanco
Medical Review By Dr. Susan E. Lawrence

Sources

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