When a patient learns of a mesothelioma diagnosis, confusion is often one of the first emotions experienced. What exactly is mesothelioma? Is it a disease? A virus? Mesothelioma is actually a rare type of cancer. When people refer to mesothelioma disease, they are actually referring to mesothelioma cancer. Mesothelioma develops in the mesothelium, the membrane that surrounds several body cavities. The mesothelium is comprised of mesothelial cells, which become abnormal and divide uncontrollably if mesothelioma is present.
Four different types of mesothelioma exist. Pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of the cancer and develops in the lining of the lungs, known as the pleura. Peritoneal mesothelioma affects the lining of the abdomen, known as the peritoneum. Pericardial mesothelioma is very rare, as approximately 200 cases have been reported internationally. Pericardial mesothelioma develops in the pericardium, the membrane that surrounds the heart and protects the organ. Testicular mesothelioma is the rarest form of mesothelioma and develops in the lining surrounding the testicles, known as the tunica vaginalis.
Approximately 2,000 to 3,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma annually in the United States. Many patients are not diagnosed with the cancer until it has reached later developmental stages since it may take 20 to 50 years for a patient to demonstrate symptoms of mesothelioma. The cancer is caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure and it often takes decades for a patient to express mesothelioma symptoms from the time initial asbestos exposure occurred.
Diagnosis can be difficult because symptoms often resemble more common illnesses and are non-specific. Patients are often unaware of the severity of their condition until they are diagnosed with mesothelioma. A patient with peritoneal mesothelioma may express symptoms such as a persistent dry or raspy cough, difficulty breathing and swallowing, night sweats and fever, among others.
Pericardial mesothelioma patients may complain of swelling or pain in the abdomen, fatigue, nausea, night sweats or the appearance of lumps under the skin on the abdomen. A patient with pericardial mesothelioma may experience heart palpitations or irregular heartbeat, chest pain, difficult breathing, fever and fatigue. Testicular mesothelioma symptoms have been confined to the appearance of testicular lumps.
Once a patient demonstrates unusual symptoms and visits a doctor, a medical review and physical examination often follow. Typically, further testing will be needed and an x-ray will likely be requested to pinpoint the location of the cancer and determine whether or not it has spread to other areas of the body.
Additional imaging tests such as a CT scan, PET scan or MRI are often recommended for a more detailed image of the cancer. A fluid and tissue test, known as a biopsy is then typically conducted to collect a sample of fluid or tissue to test for the presence of cancerous cells. A pathologist generally examines the sample to determine whether or not mesothelioma is present.
After diagnosis, patients and their loved ones are often anxious to do everything possible to fight mesothelioma. This may involve several different treatment options. The most common treatments mesothelioma patients utilize include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Though a cure for mesothelioma does not currently exist, many patients undergo several treatments for relief from symptoms to improve the quality of life. Patients may also experience relief through experimental options and treatments available through clinical trials and alternative therapies.
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