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Mesothelioma: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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What is Mesothelioma?

A mesothelioma is an aggressive form of cancer that can affect the lungs, heart, testes and abdomen. This condition develops after prolonged exposure to a group of minerals called asbestos. After exposures, the patient inhales or ingests its fibers and they become embedded in the linings of the internal organs. Once they enter the body, asbestos fibers cause irritation or cell mutation, which leads to mesothelioma cancer (x).

According to research, there are approximately 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma cancer each year. Symptoms affect lung function and patients have difficulty breathing. Some of the available treatment options include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. This condition usually develops after many years of asbestos exposure (x).

Types of Mesothelioma

There are different types of mesothelioma depending on the type of cancer cells. Common types of mesothelioma include (x):

  • Epithelioid mesothelioma: affects epithelioid cells (in more than 50 percent of cases)
  • Sarcomatoid mesothelioma: affects sarcomatoid cells (in about 10 to 20 percent of cases)
  • Biphasic mesothelioma: affects both epithelioid and sarcomatoid areas (in 20 to 30 percent of cases)

Researchers categorize mesothelioma further based on where the cancer develops in the body (x):

  • Pleural mesothelioma: starts in the chest (about 75 percent of cases)
  • Peritoneal mesothelioma: starts in the abdomen (about 25 percent of cases)
  • Pericardial mesothelioma: starts in the lining around the heart (very rare)
  • Mesothelioma of the tunica vaginalis: starts in the covering layer around the testicles (very rare)

What Causes Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma develops from long-term exposure to a group of minerals called asbestos. Most of the time, patients are exposed to it in workplace environments. However, asbestos exposure can happen anywhere, including at home. Throughout the 20th century, asbestos was a common ingredient in commercial, residential, industrial and domestic products such as ceiling tiles, shingles, cement, adhesives and insulation (x, x).

Employees in the factories that manufacture these products are often exposed to asbestos while working. Others, including homeowners and their families, can experience secondary asbestos exposure in their homes. It also affects communities near asbestos mining and manufacturing sites (x).

Occupational Exposure

High-Risk Occupations

There are several different occupations that increase the risk for asbestos exposure and potentially mesothelioma. According to research, the occupations most at risk include construction workers, firefighters, industrial workers, power plant workers and shipyard workers, respectively. Other high-risk occupations include insulators, factory workers, steel mill workers, boiler workers and textile mill workers (x).

Moderate Risk Occupations

There are also jobs that involve direct or indirect exposure that cause a moderate risk. These jobs expose workers to low asbestos levels, but over long periods of time employees may still ingest or inhale dangerous amounts of it. Auto mechanics, blacksmiths, electricians, plumbers and chemical plant workers are at a moderate risk for exposure (x).

Low-Risk Occupations

Lastly, there are low-risk occupations that do not expose employees to asbestos frequently, but low-level exposure can still cause mesothelioma over long periods of time. Hairdressers, teachers, chimney sweeps, appliance installers and aircraft mechanics may be exposed to low-level concentrations (x).

Secondhand Exposure

During the asbestos industry boom, patients developed mesothelioma from secondhand exposure as well. Specifically, employees in at-risk occupations can transfer asbestos fibers from their shoes, tools, hair and clothes back to their homes. Then their families may be at risk of secondhand exposure and suffering health complications as a result (x).

Environmental Exposure

In addition, asbestos occurs naturally in hills and mountains. Even if they do not work in an at-risk occupation, patients may also suffer from exposure if they live in areas with significant asbestos deposits in the environment. The most exposure occurs in residential communities near asbestos mines or other industrial areas (x).

Causes of Mesothelioma

Signs & Symptoms of Mesothelioma

According to research, mesothelioma is usually asymptomatic for about 20 to 50 years after asbestos exposure. In most cases, the symptoms begin to appear when the tumor begins to put pressure on a nerve, organ, bone or other part of the body. The disease develops in four stages with different symptoms and potential outcomes. The symptoms usually appear in the third and fourth stages. Therefore, it may be difficult to diagnose mesothelioma during the first and second stages based on the symptoms alone (x). Common symptoms of mesothelioma include (x):

How Mesothelioma Develops

Asbestos exposure damages cell DNA, causing mutations that turn healthy cells cancerous. The body cannot get rid of the asbestos fibers that the patient inhales or ingests because they become embedded in the body’s organ tissues. They begin to accumulate over time and eventually, the fibers start to cause damage to surrounding tissue cells, turning them cancerous. Mesothelioma usually begins in the pleura cells in the lining of the lungs and the chest wall. Mesothelioma tumors form sheaths around the affected organs (x).

Early Stages

In stage one, the cancer is localized and the cancer cells have not spread far beyond the pleural lining. Most of the time it does not cause any symptoms and treatment is more effective, producing a more positive prognosis and survival rate between 41 and 46 percent (x).

The second stage has two important characteristics that separate it from stage one. First, tumors develop in the membrane lining around the lungs. Second, the cancer cells spread to nearby lymph nodes. At this point, the condition still does not usually cause any symptoms and the survival rate drops to about 38 percent (x).

Advanced Stages

By stage three, the tumors spread through the lining of the lungs to lymph nodes, but they stay on the same side of the body as the original tumor. It may affect the diaphragm, heart sac and the layers of the chest wall. Survival rate is between 26 and 30 percent (x).

At the fourth stage, the condition is considered late- or end-stage. At this point, the tumors spread to distant organs such as the lymph nodes, the brain, spine, prostate or heart lining. This stage is terminal with a life expectancy usually less than 12 months. In this stage, the common symptoms—coughing, breathlessness—are much more severe and symptoms may affect other parts of the body because the tumor has spread. Patients may have difficulty swallowing, fatigue and abdominal pain. They may also cough up blood and experience severe weight loss or loss of appetite (x).

Mesothelioma Treatment

Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. In some cases, the patient may need a combination of treatments called multimodal therapy. Treatment depends on the type of cancer cell and where the tumor develops (x, x).

Prognosis

Mesothelioma does not have a cure. Therefore, the forecast is usually poor for most patients and the condition is usually terminal. The prognosis for mesothelioma is an estimate of how long the patient has to live after diagnosis, depending on how doctors expect the cancer to progress (x, x).

In most cases, patients live about one year after diagnosis. However, the life expectancy depends on the stage of the condition at diagnosis. For example, patients diagnosed early in stages one or two usually respond better to treatment, but patients in the advanced stages three and four may not qualify for surgery and have a shorter life expectancy. Different patients may also respond differently to treatment and some patients may not qualify for surgery depending on their health (x, x, x).

Alternative Treatment Methods

In combination with conventional treatment, alternative methods may help ease pain or side effects that treatment may cause. However, they are not a cure on their own. Always consult a doctor before trying any natural or alternative treatment options. Patients may try acupuncture, aromatherapy, yoga, massage therapy, music therapy, art therapy or meditation. These may help minimize some of the psychological complications that mesothelioma may cause, such as anxiety or depression (x).

Prevention

The U.S. Department of Labor has specific departments responsible for regulating safety procedures in occupations that increase the risk of asbestos exposure. These include the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). These administrations set guidelines to keep employees in these occupations safe, as well as their families and nearby communities. However, if an employee is concerned about asbestos exposure in the workplace, they should speak to their employers and their employee health and safety representative (x).

Supplements for Overall Health

Vitamin A

Vitamin A helps support immune health so that the body can fight infections and disease more effectively (x). The recommended serving size for vitamin A palmitate powder supplements is 30 mg once a day. Consult a doctor before taking this supplement to confirm dosage and safety.

Vitamin E

According to studies, vitamin E promotes the integrity of cellular structures. It also helps support healthy skin and oxidation in the body. Research suggests that vitamin E can potentially help the body’s immune system fight disease (x). The best serving size for vitamin E powder supplements is 350 mg a day with meals and lots of water, if a doctor approves the dosage.

Zinc

Zinc is a very important mineral to human health. Researchers associate zinc deficiency with an impaired immune system. Deficiency may make a patient more vulnerable to infections and illness (x). As a dietary supplement, take between 225 and 450 mg of zinc gluconate powder supplements up to three times a day. Do not exceed more than 450 mg in one day. Consult a doctor before taking this product.

Turmeric

Turmeric is a type of ginger and one of its active ingredients is curcumin. This popular spice is rich in antioxidants that neutralize harmful free radicals in the body (x). According to research, free radicals may be responsible for different illnesses and diseases caused by cell damage, such as cancer (x). As a dietary supplement, take 1,000 mg of turmeric root extract powder supplements per day, after consulting a doctor.

The Bottom Line

Mesothelioma is an aggressive form of cancer that develops from long-term exposure to asbestos, typically in the workplace. Asbestos causes damage to cells, mutating them and turning them cancerous. Then the cells spread through the body and affects other organs. Its main symptoms include fluid buildup in the lungs, chest pain, severe coughing and difficulty breathing.

Mesothelioma is usually a terminal disease. However, early diagnosis may produce a more positive prognosis and a longer life expectancy. Standard treatment options include surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Patients may also try alternative treatment options like yoga or aromatherapy. In addition, taking natural supplements may also support patients’ health with a doctor’s approval in combination with conventional treatment. Supplements are not a cure for mesothelioma or any other disease, but they may improve overall health.

About the author

Carey Ojuju


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