Many people have heard of mesothelioma, but few people know what it is. Mesothelioma is a very rare cancer, infecting about 2,500 to 3,000 people in the United States each year. Lack of awareness around the disease can make it difficult to get an accurate diagnosis, which in turn can make it difficult to effectively treat the disease. Understanding the warning signs for the disease can give you the best chance for survival if you have been a victim of asbestos exposure.
Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral. When asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested, they can get lodged in the chest tissue and stay there for decades, mutating the DNA in the surrounding cells until eventually tumors begin to form. Asbestos is a known carcinogen and its use is heavily restricted, but there are still many places where people may encounter asbestos. There are some industries in which workers may encounter asbestos regularly and may face dangerous exposure if the proper safety precautions are not taken. Older buildings, including homes, may contain asbestos products, and homeowners doing renovations may encounter asbestos without realizing it.
The most common type of mesothelioma is pleural mesothelioma, in which tumors develop in the tissue lining the lungs and chest cavity, known as the pleura. Other types of mesothelioma include peritoneal mesothelioma, infecting the lining of the stomach and abdomen; pericardial mesothelioma, infecting the pericardium, or the lining of the heart; and testicular mesothelioma, infecting the lining of the testes.
How Is Pleural Mesothelioma Detected?
There are some clear red flags that will show up on an imaging scan, including fluid buildup in pockets around the lungs. The pleura contains fluid, and as tumors develop, they can displace the fluid in the already narrow lining and push it into pockets. These pockets of fluid are known as pleural effusions, and they can be one of the first detectable signs of the disease. About 60 percent of mesothelioma patients experience pleural effusions, which can cause chest discomfort and difficulty breathing.
Asbestos fibers are sharp, and when they get lodged in the pleura, they damage the surrounding tissue, resulting in scar tissue development. This scarring causes the normally thin tissue in the pleura to become inflamed, and the thickened pleura can cause discomfort. These plaques are where mesothelioma tumors develop, and they will also show up on an imaging scan. Pleural thickening is very common, affecting about 88 percent of mesothelioma patients.
Respiratory symptoms are common with pleural mesothelioma, owing to the location of the tumors and the accompanying pleural effusions and scarring. The pleura plays an important role in helping the lungs function properly, protecting the organs and helping them to contract and expand effectively. Swelling, fluid buildup, and tumors all crowd the tight space in the chest cavity, preventing the lungs from expanding fully. Often, the first sign of pleural mesothelioma is a persistent cough; the damaged pleura can make it difficult to breathe, causing patients to cough involuntarily. Patients may also experience pain or tightness in the chest or lower back, as well as dyspnea, or shortness of breath.
An X-ray or CT scan will clearly show a thickened pleura or developing effusions, and a biopsy can confirm the presence of a mesothelioma tumor. The difficulty with mesothelioma is that, although pleural effusions and plaques would effectively point to a mesothelioma diagnosis, it may not occur to patients or physicians to look for them. The outward signs of mesothelioma, which include respiratory symptoms such as cough and shortness of breath, can mimic other conditions, including pneumonia, bronchitis, COVID-19, or even the common cold. It is easy to dismiss these symptoms as something else. While patients and physicians rule out other conditions or pursue other courses of treatment, the mesothelioma diagnosis is delayed.
The other types of mesothelioma can present with different symptoms, because of the different locations of the tumors. Patients with peritoneal mesothelioma may experience fluid buildup in the abdomen, rather than the chest, as well as nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and constipation. Pericardial mesothelioma patients can experience chest pain and shortness of breath, but it may be accompanied by heart murmur or arrhythmia. Patients suffering from testicular mesothelioma will likely experience pain and swelling localized to the scrotum, as well as lumps or fluid.
Mesothelioma Symptoms and Staging
The symptoms experienced by a malignant pleural mesothelioma patient will depend on the stage of the disease. In the first stage, tumors are small and localized to the pleura. Patients may not experience any symptoms at all at this stage, or they may feel minor discomfort or difficulty breathing. It is unlikely that patients will be diagnosed at this stage unless the tumors show up on an X-ray while a doctor is searching for something else. These symptoms may appear or get worse as patients progress to stage II, and patients may begin to experience pain in other areas as the tumors spread. In some cases, stage II patients may also suffer from sudden or unexplained weight loss and digestive issues.
In stage III, the tumors spread throughout the chest and abdomen and may infect lymph nodes or organs in the area. Patients in this stage are most likely dealing with serious pain, chronic cough, and fatigue, as well as swelling in the abdomen and bowel difficulties. At this point, it is clear that something serious is happening, which could prompt doctors to take a closer look if they have not already. Stage IV is the final stage of the disease’s progression, when tumors have grown large and continued to spread. Patients would be in severe discomfort by this stage, with consistent pain, difficulty breathing, fever, and digestive difficulties. Patients may experience hoarseness or trouble swallowing, and they may need oxygen to help them breathe.
How Is Mesothelioma Treated?
Early diagnosis and aggressive treatment are key to a good prognosis for mesothelioma patients. Unfortunately, because mesothelioma is rare and early symptoms are mild, most patients do not receive a conclusive mesothelioma diagnosis until they are in the later stage. If the disease has progressed too far, some treatment options, such as surgery to remove the tumors, may no longer be an option. Patients may still receive chemotherapy or radiation to treat the disease.
Patients may also receive palliative care to manage the uncomfortable symptoms of mesothelioma. There are procedures that can drain fluid from the pleural effusions, helping to minimize chest tightness and ease breathing. Pain management is also important for mesothelioma patients, particularly in later stages. Some patients may undergo pulmonary rehabilitation, which can help them improve their lung function with flexibility and strength exercises. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle with a well-balanced diet and light exercise can help patients improve their overall health, which may help reduce symptoms.
Understanding the symptoms of mesothelioma can help you advocate for yourself if you begin to experience these symptoms. Although it is not the most likely diagnosis, it is important to catch mesothelioma early in its progression to effectively treat the disease. If you know that you have a history of asbestos exposure, tell your doctor so that they can be on the lookout for signs of mesothelioma. Once a person is exposed to asbestos, there is no way to prevent mesothelioma, but early, aggressive treatment can help to extend life expectancy for patients.
Philadelphia Asbestos Lawyers at Shein Law Seek Justice for Mesothelioma Patients
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma or other asbestos-related disease, the Philadelphia asbestos lawyers at Shein Law are here to help. Our attorneys have the knowledge and experience to handle all types of asbestos exposure cases, and we will work tirelessly to hold those responsible for your asbestos exposure accountable and get you the compensation for which you are entitled. Call us at 877-743-4652 or contact us online to discuss your case. With offices in Philadelphia and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we proudly serve clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey.