Mesothelioma is a rare but aggressive cancer that affects the mesothelium, a thin layer of tissue that lines the chest, abdomen, and other organs. It is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos, a mineral fiber used in construction and other industries in the 1980s.
The latency period between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma diagnosis is typically 20-50 years long. People exposed to asbestos many years ago may develop mesothelioma later in life.
If you were exposed to asbestos at any point in your life, you must talk to your doctor about getting screened for mesothelioma. With an early diagnosis, you can start your treatment, and your medical team can help improve your quality of life.
Here are some questions you can ask your doctor.
Determining the exact type of mesothelioma is one of the most important things to do after diagnosis. There are three main types: pleural mesothelioma, the most common type, which damages the lining of the lungs; peritoneal mesothelioma, which damages the lining of the abdomen; and pericardial mesothelioma, which damages the lining of the heart.
Understanding the exact type of mesothelioma is essential because it affects prognosis and treatment options.
A specialized mesothelioma doctor can provide an accurate diagnosis, make a treatment plan, and discuss your condition’s specifics. Just make sure to discuss all your symptoms with your doctor.
The stage of mesothelioma describes how far the cancer has progressed in the body. Like other cancers, mesothelioma ranges from stage 1 (early stage) to stage 4 (advanced stage). The stage is determined by factors like the size and location of the primary tumor, whether it has spread to lymph nodes, and whether it has metastasized to other organs.
Understanding your exact stage is critical because it directly impacts your prognosis and what treatments you may be eligible for. Those with early-stage 1 or 2 disease often have the best treatment outcomes.
The main treatment options for mesothelioma include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Understanding these options will allow you to make fully informed decisions about your care.
Surgery is often the first line of treatment for patients with early-stage mesothelioma. This involves the removal of the tumor and affected tissue. Chemotherapy alone is often used for advanced-stage disease when surgery is not an option. Additionally, radiation uses high-energy beams to destroy cancer cells. Radiation may be combined with chemotherapy as primary treatment for patients who cannot undergo surgery.
Ensure you understand all the options relevant to your specific mesothelioma type and stage. Ask your doctor if you are eligible for clinical trials that provide access to promising new therapies.
All cancer treatments carry potential side effects. Understanding the possible side effects of your mesothelioma treatment will allow you to prepare and take steps to minimize their impact on your quality of life.
Surgery may lead to pain, fluid buildup, and infection around the incision site. There is also a risk of blood clots, pneumonia, and arrhythmias.
Chemotherapy side effects vary depending on the drugs used but commonly include fatigue, increased risk of infections, hair loss, nausea, vomiting, appetite changes, nerve damage, and mouth sores. Similarly, radiation therapy can cause skin irritation, difficulty swallowing, chest pain, pneumonitis, and low blood counts. Side effects are usually temporary but can persist long-term in some cases.
Having an open discussion with your doctor about the side effects you may experience with your planned treatments is important. Don’t hesitate to bring up any side effects you are experiencing so they can be properly managed.
Understanding the overall goal of your mesothelioma treatment is important for having realistic expectations. Treatment goals depend largely on the stage of the cancer.
For later-stage cancers that have spread significantly, treatment is often aimed at controlling the growth and spread of the cancer to extend life. Palliative treatments can also help relieve pain and symptoms. In advanced cases where the cancer is progressing rapidly, treatment may focus on improving the quality of life through pain management and reducing symptoms.
Discuss with your doctor what the treatment plan aims to achieve – whether it is extending life expectancy or simply improving comfort and symptom relief.
Once you complete active mesothelioma treatment, regular follow-up exams and tests will be a crucial part of your care to manage any side effects.
Follow-up frequency is often every 2-3 months initially, then may decrease to every six months after two years. Testing may include CT scans, PET scans, MRIs, bloodwork, pulmonary function tests, and physical exams. Report any concerning symptoms right away between visits.
It is crucial to keep up with all recommended follow-up care, even after finishing treatment. Ongoing monitoring and side effect management will continue for the rest of your life. Discuss your doctor’s recommended schedule for long-term follow-ups.
Being diagnosed with mesothelioma can feel devastating. Many patients describe shock, anger, sadness, anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness upon diagnosis.
Consider joining a support group to connect with others going through similar experiences. Seek counseling or mental health services to process this news. Ask your doctor about anti-depressant medication if needed. Lean on family and friends for comfort and distraction.
With time, support, and treatment, many patients develop effective coping strategies and go on to live meaningful lives after diagnosis.
Receiving a diagnosis of mesothelioma can feel overwhelming and devastating. It is a very challenging cancer, but there are treatment options available. Having open, honest, and thorough conversations with your medical team is extremely important to fully understand your diagnosis and make informed decisions about your care.
While mesothelioma presents significant challenges, you have the power to be your own best advocate. Arm yourself with information and seek the most advanced treatments available.