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.
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
- Shortness of breath
- Weight loss
Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms
- Weight loss
- Abdominal swelling or tenderness
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling full
Pericardial Mesothelioma Symptoms
- Irregular heartbeat
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
- Night sweats
Side Effects of Mesothelioma Treatment
- Pain in area of surgery
- Swelling, drainage or infection at incision site
- Bleeding at incision site
- Cardiac complications
- Nausea & vomiting
- Mouth sores
- Hair loss
- Reduced blood-cell counts
- Skin changes & irritation
- Difficulty swallowing
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Making improvements to your overall health may positively impact your prognosis. The most common improvements survivors make include:
- Improving diet
- 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.
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.
The Search for a Cure
Mesothelioma is notoriously resistant to treatment, but doctors are investigating a number of promising technologies that could lead to a breakthrough.
For example, the University of Pennsylvania is studying the combination of proton therapy and photodynamic therapy for mesothelioma. Proton therapy uses charged particles instead of conventional radiation to better target tumors, and photodynamic therapy uses a sensitizing drug and light energy to kill cancer cells during surgery.
In 2019, the Pacific Mesothelioma Center patented a technology that could form the basis for using stem cells to deliver molecular and gene therapies to mesothelioma tumor sites.
Further, an international phase III clinical trial is currently testing a mesothelioma immunotherapy treatment delivered through a genetically-engineered virus.
In the best case scenario, it takes years of testing before an experimental treatment is officially approved for mesothelioma. However, patients can sometimes access new therapies through clinical trials or off-label prescribing.
Patients should always consult an experienced mesothelioma specialist before choosing any treatment approach, especially an experimental one.
Resources for Patients & Families
We’re here to simplify things for you and your family. Our resources are free, and our patient advocates are available 24/7.
- Mesothelioma Packet
We can deliver everything you want to know about mesothelioma to your doorstep in a convenient informational packet. The packet will be tailored to your diagnosis and specific requests.
- Clinical Trials
We can help you find a clinical trial that may extend your life. Our patient advocates can help you understand how clinical trials work, the treatments involved and how to apply.
- Doctor Match
Our Patient Advocates can match you with mesothelioma specialists who have experience treating your type of mesothelioma.
- Financial Assistance
Financial assistance is available to people diagnosed with mesothelioma. We will help you determine what grants and compensation options you are eligible for.
- Veterans Assistance
Our Veterans Department is certified to help you file a VA benefits claim. We can answer any questions you have about VA health care and disability compensation.
- Support Group
Our support group gives patients a space and time to connect with other people facing mesothelioma. Learn how to cope with the effects of this cancer by joining our monthly online support group hosted by our licensed mental health counselor.