respiratory tract illustration
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What Is It?

This rare cancer starts in the tissues that line your organs. It happens most often in your lungs, where it’s called pleural mesothelioma. You also can get it in the lining of your belly and, very rarely, around your heart or testicles. It’s a fast-growing cancer that can be treated, but not often cured.

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mesothelioma triptych
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Types

The different kinds of mesothelioma are based on how the cancer cells look. Epithelioid is the most common -- the cancer cells are arranged in sheets. Treatments work better on this one than others. With sarcomatoid, the cells are spindly. This is the least common and hardest to treat. Biphasic is a mix of the other two types. The more sarcomatoid cells there are, the harder it is to treat.

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asbestos ore close up
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Link to Asbestos

You’re more likely to get malignant mesothelioma if you spend a lot of time around asbestos, a natural mineral once used in floors, shingles, and other building materials. You’re also at risk if you live with someone who works with it -- the dust can be brought home on skin and clothes. When asbestos breaks, its dust can get into your lungs and may lead to mesothelioma. Doctors aren’t sure why. Not everyone who’s around it gets cancer, and it might not show up for up to 40 years.

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doctor examining woman with cough
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Symptoms

Common signs of malignant mesothelioma include:

  • Coughing
  • Lumps, pain, or swelling in your belly or ribcage
  • Feeling tired
  • Trouble breathing
  • Problems with blood clots
  • Weight loss for no reason

Many other conditions can cause these issues, but see your doctor if you’re concerned, especially if you’ve been around asbestos.

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doctor examining chest xray
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Diagnosis: Imaging Tests

Your doctor may ask questions about your health history, then give you a physical to look for lumps or fluid buildup in your chest or belly. He also may want to get a closer look at your lungs with a chest X-ray. Depending on what that shows, he may recommend a scan to see where the tumor may be and if it has spread. This might be a computerized tomography (CT) scan, when several X-rays are taken from different angles and put together to make a more complete picture. Or he might suggest a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, which uses radiation to make 3-D color images.

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lung biopsy
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Diagnosis: Biopsy

The only way to know for sure if you have mesothelioma is for your doctor to take a sample of the tumor for testing. To do this, he might make one or two small cuts, then use a tiny camera and special tools to take the sample. Or he might take out some tissue or fluid with a needle. In some cases, your doctor might use open surgery, where he makes a larger opening in your body to get the sample.

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Stage

Only pleural mesothelioma, the kind in your lungs, has stages. They tell you how advanced the cancer is and help your doctor know how to treat it.

  • Stage I: It’s in the lining of only one side of your chest wall.
  • Stage II: It has spread into the lining or tissue of your lung and diaphragm.
  • Stage III: It has moved deeper into your chest, maybe into lung muscle or lymph nodes.
  • Stage IV: It has spread throughout your chest or to other parts of your body.
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surgical team in operating room
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Treatment: Surgery

Your doctor’s recommendation will depend on the cancer’s stage (if it has one), your overall health, and how well your lungs work. Surgery is the most common treatment. If you find it early enough, your doctor may be able take out all the cancer. Even if he can’t, surgery can help with symptoms like pain, trouble breathing, and fluid buildup.

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Treatment: Chemotherapy

This is a combination of powerful drugs used to kill cancer. Your doctor may suggest it before surgery to shrink the cancer or afterward to keep it from coming back. It’s also an option for people who aren’t healthy enough to have surgery, or whose cancer has spread throughout their body. Side effects include mouth sores, upset stomach, and throwing up.

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radiation therapy lungs
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Treatment: Radiation Therapy

For this, doctors use beams of high energy to kill cancer cells. It’s sometimes used after surgery to kill off any that are left behind. You can also get it to ease symptoms like pain, trouble breathing, or problems swallowing. It’s usually given in doses that last just a few minutes. Side effects can include feeling more tired than usual, shortness of breath, and upset stomach.

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medical researchers
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Treatment: Clinical Trials

Researchers use clinical trials to test new treatments. If you’re interested, your doctor can help you figure out if one might be right for you. Treatments being testing for mesothelioma include:

  • Photodynamic therapy: uses a light-activated drug to kill cancer cells
  • Targeted therapy: uses drugs that block cancer cells from working like they normally would
  • Gene therapy: changes the genes in the cancer cells to destroy them
  • Immunotherapy: uses your immune system to attack cancer cells
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Treatment: Integrative Medicine

Some forms of complementary medicine may help ease mesothelioma symptoms. For example, if you’re often short of breath, you might want to try relaxation exercises, acupuncture, or breath training to help keep you calm when you have trouble breathing.

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asbestos roofing material
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Can You Prevent it?

If your home was built before 1978, be careful when you’re working on it -- it’s more likely to have asbestos. If you’re not sure if your home has problem areas, have an expert check. It’s usually safer to leave asbestos in place than to try to take it out.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 06/04/2017 Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on June 04, 2017

IMAGES PROVIDED BY:

1) BSIP / Medical Images

2) Creative Commons

3) asbestorama / Thinkstock

4) BSIP / UIG / Getty Images

5) utah778 / Thinkstock

6) BSIP / Medical Images

7) Scott Camazine / Science Source

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9) Tom Stewart / Getty Images

10) Phanie / BURGER / Medical Images

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12) Yue_ / Thinkstock

13) Billbeee /Wikipedia

 

American Cancer Society: “Malignant Mesothelioma,” “What’s New in Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: “Mesothelioma,” "Malignant Mesothelioma Research and Treatment.”

International Center for Disability Resources: “Asbestos in the Home.”

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: “Malignant Mesothelioma.”

Mayo Clinic: “Mesothelioma.”

NIH, National Cancer Institute: “Malignant Mesothelioma Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version.”

NYU Langone Medical Center: “Malignant Mesothelioma.”

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on June 04, 2017

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.