Malignant pleural mesothelioma is a rare lung cancer that affects the pleural membranes, which line the exterior surface of the lungs, providing protection and support to these organs. This type of cancer is very aggressive, meaning that it spreads rapidly and is resistant to conventional treatments. People with malignant pleural mesothelioma generally have a very poor prognosis, with an average survival time of less than one year after diagnosis.
Along with a chronic lung condition called asbestosis, malignant pleural mesothelioma is commonly considered an occupational disease. The people most at risk are those who have worked in industries where asbestos has been used or is present. Asbestos is fire-resistant and very durable, and in the 20th century, it was used in a wide range of industries because of these valuable properties.
The way in which asbestos causes malignant pleural mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers is not well understood. It is thought that inhaled asbestos fibers lodge in the lungs, where they cause chronic inflammation and irritation of sensitive lung tissue. In the pleural membranes of the lungs, the presence of asbestos causes cells to become highly susceptible to cancer-causing genetic mutations. These processes occur over a long time period; people who develop pleural mesothelioma generally do so three to five decades after asbestos exposure.
Pleural mesothelioma is a difficult cancer to diagnose. This is because early symptoms of the cancer are nonspecific, meaning that they resemble the symptoms of other diseases, including much less serious viral infections. People who develop this type of mesothelioma might experience symptoms such as persistent rasping cough, fever, night sweats, weight loss, difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing and facial swelling. Someone with a more advanced mesothelioma cancer might have severe chest pain and might cough up blood.
The diagnostic process for pleural mesothelioma commonly involves medical imaging tests such as X-rays, CT scans and MRI scans, as well as physical examinations, blood tests and biopsies. These tests are used not only to diagnose the condition but also to provide a prognosis. Medical imaging tests can pinpoint the location of tumors and help an oncologist determine whether the cancer has spread from its point of origin. These tests also help the oncologist determine the best course of treatment.
Someone who is diagnosed with mesothelioma generally has three treatment possibilities: surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. When a patient is a good candidate for surgery, he or she generally will undergo a procedure to remove diseased sections of lung. Following this, he or she will undergo chemotherapy to ensure that any remaining cancer cells are destroyed.
The difficulty of diagnosing malignant pleural mesothelioma means that many people are diagnosed too late for surgery to be a viable treatment option. People who are diagnosed late generally have a very poor prognosis. For these people, treatments are palliative, meaning they are carried out to relieve pain and other symptoms, rather than to cure the cancer.