What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a kind of cancer that affects the mesothelial cells, which form the membrane (known as mesothelium) that lines the chest and abdomen and surrounds the internal organs. Mesothelium has different names depending on the area of the body. The mesothelium surrounding the lungs is known as the pleura, in the abdomen it is known as the peritoneum and the mesothelium surrounding the heart is known as the pericardium. Mesothelioma develops most commonly in the chest and is a relatively rare form of cancer. However, recent figures are suggesting a slight increase in the number of cases.

What causes mesothelioma?

The most common cause of mesothelioma is contact with asbestos, which is the major cause of around 90 percent of mesothelioma cases. Asbestos was used by many UK industries in the past, but the use of blue and brown asbestos was forbidden in the 1980s and the use of all types of asbestos was banned in 1999. People who work as plumbers, builders, electricians, boiler engineers and ship-builders are most likely to have been exposed to asbestos. Contact with a virus known as SV40 may also increase the danger of developing mesothelioma.

Symptoms of mesothelioma

Mesothelioma does not usually cause symptoms in the early phases, but as the condition develops symptoms may begin to appear and are usually caused by cancerous cells pressing on a nerve or an organ. The symptoms vary according to where the cancer develops. Symptoms include:

  • Pleural mesothelioma: pain in the side of the chest, lower back pain, a persistent cough, breathlessness, unexplained weight loss, hoarseness and a fever
  • Peritoneal mesothelioma: abdominal pain, nausea and sickness, weight loss, loss of appetite and changes in bowel movements

Many of the symptoms associated with mesothelioma are caused by mild and common health conditions, but it is always worth getting checked out, especially if symptoms persist.

How is mesothelioma diagnosed?

If you find yourself with symptoms of mesothelioma you should see your GP right away. Your GP will ask you a sequence of questions and examine you. If they suspect you may have mesothelioma they will refer you to a consultant for further tests, which will include a chest X-ray, a CT scan, biopsy and pleural and peritoneal aspiration tests.

What treatments are available for people with mesothelioma?

There is currently no cure for mesothelioma, but there are treatments that can control symptoms, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The type of treatment will depend on the stage of the cancer. Unfortunately most cases are too advanced for surgery alone and a combination of treatments may be recommended.

What is the outlook for people with mesothelioma?

The outlook depends on the stage of the cancer with early diagnosis increasing the chance of survival. However, as most cases are diagnosed at an advanced stage the outlook for mesothelioma is not very positive and only 40 percent of people will survive for one year after diagnosis.

Living with mesothelioma

Living with mesothelioma cancer is very difficult and presents both emotional and physical challenges. Your care team will provide for all aspects of your care and wellbeing, but if you need additional information, support or somebody to talk to, you can contact a UK cancer charity.

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