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Mesothelioma is a rare and highly aggressive cancer that usually strikes late in life, and its symptoms are so much like other illnesses that diagnosing it is tricky, which makes treating it even tougher.
It can take anywhere from 10 to 50 years after a person is first exposed to toxic asbestos fibers before he receives a diagnosis of mesothelioma. And that is a big part of the problem with treating the disease. By the time it is typically diagnosed, cancer has usually spread through the thin lining surrounding the lungs or abdomen, leaving most patients with a grim long-term outlook.
By far the most common type of mesothelioma is pleural mesothelioma, which develops in the lining of the lungs. Early symptoms are shortness of breath, pain in the rib area, a persistent cough, weight loss and sometimes abdominal swelling and pain.
Because mesothelioma is so rare – only about 3,000 cases are diagnosed a year in the United States – is not the first illness that can come to a doctor’s mind. And if, say, the patient who complains of these symptoms also has a history of smoking, that can lead to another path of potential diagnoses.
Getting the right diagnosis from a doctor while the cancer is in an early stage also affects the treatment of the disease.
Standard treatments for mesothelioma are the same as for many other cancers – surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and often a combination of the three (called multimodal therapy).
The stage of the cancer can dictate much of the treatment plan. Early stage cancer patients generally are in better health and can tolerate more aggressive treatments, starting with surgery followed by chemotherapy.
Later stage patients often have more limited options. Doctors will qualify patients before taking them into surgery. Not everyone is eligible.
And the less healthy a patient is, the less they can tolerate aggressive treatment or even withstand the rigors of chemotherapy.
Someone who receives a late-stage mesothelioma diagnosis does not have the option of potentially curative treatment. Instead, the treatment plan is focused on prolonging a quality of life and on pain management.
However, there also are a number of emerging new treatment options that can be combined with traditional ones. There is immunotherapy, which focuses on strengthening a body’s own immune system to the point where it can fight off the mesothelioma. There also is gene therapy, which involves destroying the defective genes that are leading to cancerous changes.
Bio: Tim Povtak is a senior writer for Asbestos.com. He is a former award-winning journalist at a major metropolitan newspaper.