This educational two-part series will explore in detail the two most common types of mesothelioma, a rare and particularly aggressive form of cancer that is caused by exposure to asbestos in anywhere from 80-90 percent of diagnosed cases. Mesothelioma can form in any of four different organs but is most commonly seen in just two—the pleura and the peritoneum. First we will look at the most common of the two forms of mesothelioma, pleural, including its symptoms, stages and treatment.
According to the American Cancer Society, pleural mesothelioma occurs in about 75 percent of mesothelioma patients overall. It affects the pleura, a thin lining that covers and protects the chest wall and the lungs, in addition to adjacent internal structures like the bronchi. This type of mesothelioma cancer is caused by malignant cells and tumor growth that occurs in the affected regions, usually as a result of damage caused by inhaled asbestos fibers that lie dormant in the affected tissue for the duration of the victim’s lifetime.
Like in other forms of the disease, pleural mesothelioma presents symptoms that are notoriously difficult to detect and diagnose. They are usually mild in severity, only increasing beyond minor pain and discomfort to acutely noticeable in the months prior to diagnosis.
Some of the symptoms most often reported include shortness of breath, sometimes but not always accompanied by chest pain, as well as persistent coughing or wheezing. Another symptom often noticed is pervasive hoarseness of the voice. In addition, less localized symptoms like weight loss, fever and difficulty sleeping can also occur.
There are specific stages assigned to cases of pleural mesothelioma, in accordance with the commonly used TNM system of cancer classification.
Within this system, ‘T’ stands for tumor and refers to the primary tumor in which the cancer is located. Which degree this tumor falls into, within stage one, pertains to its exact location and degree of severity.
The ‘N’ stands for nodes, or regional lymph nodes, and assesses whether or not and to what extent the malignant cells have spread within the body’s lymph system.
The ‘M’ represents metastases, which describes the spread of cancer to other parts of the body. There are only two degrees within this stage—no distant metastasis or distant metastasis—essentially making it a yes or no category.
The type of treatment used for pleural mesothelioma patients depends upon stage of their diagnosis, as well as a combination of individual factors like patient age, general health, coexisting conditions and more.
Though some combined effort of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy is the typically prescribed course of treatment for mesothelioma, alternative and additional modalities also exist, often within the context of mesothelioma clinical trials. These are medical research studies conducted to investigate both the safety and efficacy of new and emerging treatments. Though certain risks apply, these trials are often believed to present the most hope for success in cases of difficult to treat cancers like mesothelioma.