This information is about mesothelioma – a cancer of the thin membrane that lines the chest and abdomen. It describes the causes and symptoms of mesothelioma and what is likely to happen if you are diagnosed with this type of cancer.
Around 2,300 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma in the UK each year. Exposure to asbestos is the most common cause of mesothelioma. Mesothelioma doesn’t usually develop until 30–40 years after exposure to asbestos.
Surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy can all be used to treat mesothelioma. An important part of the care for people with advanced mesothelioma is using treatments to control symptoms.
What is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a tumor of the mesothelium. This is the thin membrane that lines the chest and abdomen (tummy) and surrounds the organs in these areas.
A cancer of the mesothelium is called a malignant mesothelioma. However, it’s usually referred to simply as mesothelioma. There are other tumors of the mesothelium, such as adenomatoid tumors, benign cystic mesotheliomas and solitary fibrous tumors of the pleura.
Risk factors and causes of mesothelioma
Asbestos is the most common cause of mesothelioma. Up to 9 out of 10 cases of mesothelioma are caused by exposure to asbestos fibers.
Occasionally, mesothelioma develops in people who have never been exposed to asbestos. The other causes of the disease are not fully understood, but in rare cases mesothelioma has been linked to exposure to radiation.
Mesothelioma is not infectious and can’t be passed on to other people. It isn’t caused by inherited faulty genes, so family members don’t have an increased risk of developing it, unless they have been in contact with asbestos.
People most likely to have been exposed to asbestos at work include:
Joiners and construction workers
These jobs were mostly done by men. Mesothelioma is five times more common in men than in women.
People who have not worked directly with asbestos can also sometimes develop mesothelioma. These include:
Family members of people who’ve worked with asbestos and brought the dust home on their clothes
People who lived near asbestos factories
People who worked in buildings containing asbestos materials, which were disturbed or damaged.
Symptoms of mesothelioma
The symptoms of mesothelioma may include any of the following:
Breathlessness, chest wall pain which feels heavy and dull or aching, weight loss, fever, sweating (especially at night), hoarseness – this happens when there is pressure on the nerve that supplies the voice box, cough that doesn’t go away, abdominal pain and swelling (peritoneal mesothelioma).
These symptoms can be caused by conditions other than cancer, but you should always have them checked out by your doctor, particularly if they don’t go away after a couple of weeks.
Currently, there is no cure for mesothelioma unless it can be completely removed by surgery. Unfortunately, when mesothelioma is diagnosed, it has usually already spread beyond the point where it could be completely removed by surgery. In this case, the aim of treatment is to control symptoms.
Different treatments can be used for mesothelioma. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are the most commonly used treatments. These treatments may be used to control symptoms such as pain, or to control the cancer for as long as possible. Research has shown that chemotherapy may help some people live longer.
Occasionally, surgery may be used to help control pleural effusions caused by the mesothelioma. However, there is no evidence that surgery can help people with mesothelioma live longer.
The prognosis for malignant mesothelioma is rarely favorable, which is why early diagnosis is so incredibly important. Yet as mentioned above, there are great strides being taken in the medical and scientific communities to ensure that life expectancy and survival rates continue to climb for patients as researchers continue to find a cure.