Mesothelioma is a disease caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma can affect any area of your body, but it usually occurs in the lungs, chest, or abdominal areas. It can be either malignant (cancerous) or benign (not cancerous). Malignant mesothelioma is the most common type of mesothelioma and accounts for roughly ninety percent of all cases. Benign mesothelioma is less common than malignant mesothelioma, but it can still happen.
Pleural mesothelioma is the most common type of mesothelioma, accounting for approximately seventy percent of all mesothelioma cases. Pleural mesothelioma is more commonly known as peritoneal mesothelioma, because the tissue it covers is the same tissue that the cavity surrounding the heart is called the peritoneum. Peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms vary but include pain and swelling of the abdominal cavity, pain and swelling of the neck, jaw, or buttocks, and pain in the groin area or upper thighs. The symptoms also may occur in the groin area, arms, or legs. Many times, no symptoms are apparent in a person who has been exposed to asbestos.
Another cause of mesothelioma is exposure to UV radiation (radiation therapy). People who have worked with UV radiation on a regular basis have an increased risk of getting mesothelioma, especially if they had been exposed to a large amount of UV radiation. Some experts believe that chronic exposure to UV radiation may also increase the risk of developing pleural mesothelioma, although this remains to be proven. There is an increased risk of developing this type of cancer among employees of asbestos companies.
Some people who develop mesothelioma have symptoms that do not fit into the above categories. They may have symptoms such as unexplained weight loss, chronic cough with mucus, fever, or unexplained pain or swelling in the abdominal area. Some people develop symptoms that do fit into one or more of the above categories but do not show signs of cancer in their lungs, stomach or liver. Mesothelioma can be either malignant or benign, with the malignant version growing and spreading rapidly, sometimes causing respiratory tract involvement and symptoms as described above. Benign mesothelioma is not usually curable.
If mesothelioma is suspected, patients should have regular chest X-rays and CT scans. The lungs should be checked for pleural effusion, which can be a sign of pericardial mesothelioma, or for signs of fluid build-up in the lungs, a sign of fluid deposition in the heart, or both. A chest X-ray can help determine if fluid collects in the pleura, which can indicate pericardial mesothelioma or other pleural effusions.
After several years, mesothelioma patients generally start to experience symptoms that progress toward normal health. These include cough with mucus, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, and fatigue. In many cases, the cancer does not spread, but it is possible that it could. Regular monitoring of the overall health and the general pattern of symptoms can be very helpful in determining whether the cancer is localized or spreading. The standard life expectancy for people with this type of cancer is about two to three years; however, the outlook for a person with this condition can vary greatly, depending on many factors, including how aggressively the treatment is pursued, how early in the cancer’s course he or she is diagnosed, his or her age, and the other health issues involved.