Get the Facts on Malignant Mesothelioma
Malignant mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the lining of the body’s internal organs. It is caused by asbestos exposure, and has a latency period of up to fifty years. Malignant mesothelioma occurs most often in the lining of the lungs but can also occur in the lining of the heart, reproductive organs, and abdomen. Due to the long latency period, most malignant mesothelioma patients are over fifty years old. However, some mesothelioma cases do occur in younger patients.
Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer and doctors do not currently agree on a standard treatment for it. However, some patients respond very well to treatment and achieve full remission. Mesothelioma is also the subject of intensive research in the medical community, and new treatments are constantly under investigation by the medical community. Because mesothelioma is a rare cancer, there are also opportunities to participate in free clinical trials. A mesothelioma diagnosis can be daunting and treatment can be difficult to go through, but for many patients the actual progression of the disease is not as bad as the initial prognosis.
Mesothelioma survivors stress the importance of remaining positive in their recoveries. There is a mental side to fighting mesothelioma, because the treatments are difficult and the statistics can be intimidating. However, it is important not to lose sight of hope. You can survive mesothelioma, and there are resources to help you along the stages of your journey through mesothelioma treatment.
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Mesothelioma is among the rarest of all the different types of cancers. In fact, of all of the identified forms of the disease, malignant mesothelioma is said to account for less than one percent of diagnoses, but it is anticipated that the disease will be seen in increasing numbers over the next several years. This is a result of the constant use of asbestos in manufacturing and home and building insulation dating back approximately forty years ago; in over 90 percent of the diagnosed mesothelioma cases worldwide there has been profound evidence of occupational exposure to asbestos.
Interestingly, prior to 1950, pleural diseases (those that affect the lining of the lungs and other organs) were rarely malignant; it was only after World War II, when more and more people were working or living in settings that were rife with asbestos that malignancies started to appear and the link between exposure to the mineral and the disease was established.
The statistics pertaining to the number of mesothelioma deaths per year paint a tragic picture of the deadly relationship between asbestos use and malignancies of the pleural lining. Asbestos use peaked between 1940 and the 1980s, when the substance was effectively banned in the United States. The number of deaths from mesothelioma reached its highest historical point in the year 2002, when over 3,000 people died – tracing back, that would put victims’ exposure squarely in the middle of the 1950s and 1960s. Epidemiologists anticipate that the majority of mesothelioma diagnoses and deaths still lie ahead of us; of the 90,000 deaths that it is estimated that mesothelioma will have caused by the year 2050, 65,000 of them are expected to take place between 2002 and 2050.
Mesothelioma diagnosis is far more likely to be made in men; only 20-30 percent of cases that have been diagnosed to date have been women. In most cases the symptoms are a dull chest pain and shortness of breath, though this is dependent upon the type of mesothelioma; in some cases the patients experience sharp pains, weight loss and sweating. One notable symptom that has been noted in about one third of cases is finger clubbing, a condition in which the nail bed gets soft, the fingernails start to curve, and the finger tips end up growing somewhat larger than the rest of the digit.
The presence of any of these symptoms combined with a history of asbestos exposure at any time within the previous sixty years is a strong clue for physicians to look specifically for mesothelioma.
Treatment of malignant mesothelioma has met with only marginal success. There are a variety of different approaches that have been attempted, often in combination with each other, and the overall care regimen that is most widely applied includes a multidisciplinary team that includes oncologists and radiologists, cardiothoracic physicians who specialize in the lungs, and palliative care practitioners including social workers, psychologists and spiritual advisors.
Mesothelioma treatment is primarily designed to provide pain relief rather than to achieve a cure; for example, approximately half of all mesothelioma patients who undergo radiation therapy to reduce the size of their tumors report that the procedure was beneficial, reducing pain and increasing quality of life, and combining radiation therapy with debulking surgery has been shown to offer an extension of the patient’s life; without this multimodality approach the average lifespan from date of diagnosis is eight to fourteen months.
Chemotherapy has shown mixed results at life extension; other approaches that are more invasive can be valuable for those who are in earlier stages of the disease, but can also be highly dangerous for those in later stages, with death resulting in up to 60 percent of the cases.
Though mesothelioma is considered to always be a fatal disease, there are certain indicators that point to a lower chance of long-term survival. These include being male, being older than 75 years old, a high white blood cell count and platelet count. Those who are diagnosed with the disease at a younger age have the best chance of longer survival periods, and there are also differences in survival rate based on what kind of mesothelioma the patient has been diagnosed with, but only five to ten percent of patients live longer than five years after diagnosis. Most patients who survive the cancer for longer than two years end up dying from respiratory failure.
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