Malignant mesothelioma is a rare kind of cancer that develops in the tissue covering many of your organs. There are four different types of this disease. What kind you have depends on where in your body it develops.
Mesothelioma in the Lungs (Pleural Mesothelioma)
This is the most common form of the disease. It accounts for about 75% of all mesothelioma cases. There are about 2,500 to 3,000 cases of it every year in the United States.
Causes: Asbestos is the main culprit. These mineral fibers were once widely used to build houses and other products. That’s because the fibers are resistant to heat and fire. But doctors later learned that they can get stuck in your lungs when you inhale them. This can cause inflammation and scarring. Over many years, this can lead to the development of mesothelioma in your lungs. Your genes and other factors also influence your risk.
Diagnosis: Mesothelioma shares a lot of symptoms with other diseases, so diagnosing it is tricky. Your doctor might order X-rays of your chest, or do a CT scan to look for signs of asbestos exposure. He might also do a PET scan to find out where the cancer has spread. All of these imaging tests can help him see if something is wrong. If so, he’ll have to take a small lung tissue sample (biopsy) to know for sure if it’s mesothelioma.
Treatment: It’ll depend on how advanced your cancer is. Your doctor may perform more imaging tests to figure out what stage of the disease you’re in. There are four stages. The higher the number, the more the cancer has spread.
If it’s in the early stages, you might need surgery. It can sometimes cure the cancer. In other cases, it just helps reduce your symptoms. You might also need chemotherapy, or "chemo." This can be used alone or before surgery to help shrink your cancer or to keep it from spreading as fast. It can also sometimes be used after surgery to reduce the chance of the cancer coming back. Radiation therapy after surgery might help kill any cancer cells that are still in your body.
Most of the time, mesothelioma isn’t diagnosed until it’s advanced. If it’s too far along, doctors can’t operate. In that case, your doctor might suggest treatments to control your symptoms.
Mesothelioma in the Abdomen (Peritoneal Mesothelioma)
This type accounts for about 15% to 20% of all mesothelioma cases. It affects the organs in the abdomen and the abdominal cavity.
Symptoms: These include swelling or pain in your belly, lumps, and weight loss.
Causes: If you swallow asbestos fibers (it’s possible; the fibers are too small to see with the naked eye), you can damage the lining of your abdominal organs and cavity. This increases your risk of getting mesothelioma there. Your genes play a role, too.
Diagnosis: Your doctor will order imaging tests to look for things that don’t look normal. If he finds something, he’ll do a biopsy. If you have mesothelioma, he’ll order more tests to determine what stage you’re in.
Treatment: It usually consists of a combination of things, including surgery, chemo, and radiation. If you’re diagnosed at a later stage, it may be too late for surgery. In that case, your doctor will recommend other treatments to control your symptoms.
Mesothelioma in the Heart (Pericardial Mesothelioma)
About 1% of all mesothelioma cases happen in the sac of tissue that surrounds the heart. Doctors call this the pericardium.
Causes: Doctors aren’t sure. It’s unclear whether asbestos exposure causes mesothelioma in the pericardium.
Diagnosis: Your doctor might order a test called an echocardiography. This will allow him to see how thick your heart tissues are. But he’ll need to do a biopsy to know for sure if you have this cancer.
Treatment: If your cancer isn’t too advanced, your doctor might recommend a procedure called pericardiectomy. During this surgery, he’ll remove some or all of the pericardium. You might also need chemo.
This type is extremely rare. There have only been a few hundred reported cases.
Symptoms: Because it’s so rare, there’s not a known, standard set of symptoms. But the one seen most often is a painless mass on the scrotum.
Causes: Most often, it happens in men between ages 55 and 75. There’s a possible link to asbestos exposure, but doctors don’t know what the exact connection is.
Diagnosis: Your doctor will likely perform an ultrasound of your scrotum. You might get a biopsy to see if there’s a mass. Or, your doctor will remove the tumor with surgery and analyze it to confirm the diagnosis.
Treatment: Because this form of mesothelioma is so rare, it’s not well understood. Nor is there a standard treatment.