What Is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that typically originates in certain cells in the chest or abdominal cavity linings. The mesothelium (i.e., the lining) of the pleura, peritoneum, pericardium, and tunica vaginalis (the lining of the testicles) can develop cancerous tumors just like any other part of the body – such as the lungs, skin, and blood. Compared to those more common cancers, occurrences of mesothelioma are rare in the United States. While only about 3,000 new people are diagnosed with the disease each year (many of which are military veterans), the cancer is aggressive and most patients will not have access to curative treatment.
Of all the diagnosed mesotheliomas, pleural (in the lining around the lungs) is the most common, making up over 75 percent of all diagnoses. Peritoneal is the second-most common and represents a majority of the residual diagnoses. Among all mesotheliomas, tunica vaginalis and pericardial (in the lining surrounding the heart) mesothelioma are especially rare. Often, the rarity of the disease, combined with its common respiratory symptoms (such as shortness of breath and cough), leads to many misdiagnoses by doctors unfamiliar with it.
|Types of Mesothelioma|
|Type||% of Diagnoses||General Prognosis (compared to other types)|
|Epithelioid||More than 50%||Best outlook|
|Sarcomatoid||10% to 20%||Worst outlook|
|Biphasic (mix of both)||20% to 30%||Varies|
Between the 1970s and 1990s, diagnoses of the disease peaked. Most cases were so advanced that only palliative care was available to patients. To date, men are more likely to develop the disease than women in the U.S. Additionally, white and Latino Americans have been diagnosed more often than African and Asian Americans. Lastly, due to a long latency period between the cancer’s initiation and the onset of symptoms, mesothelioma is most-commonly diagnosed in the elderly. For instance, the average age for patients receiving a pleural mesothelioma diagnosis is 72 years old.
Veterans who were diagnosed with mesothelioma may be eligible for VA compensation. To find out if you qualify, speak with a patient advocate today.
Causes and Risk Factors
Asbestos exposure is considered a primary risk factor for developing mesothelioma – between 70 and 80 percent of patients have a prolonged history of interaction with asbestos products. The use of asbestos in building materials was popular throughout America during the 19th century, exposing a wide range of careers like construction workers, military personnel, and teachers to the inhalation of hazardous toxins. Other affected occupations include:
- Brake mechanics
- Demolition workers
- Home renovators
- Shipyard workers
However, the specific genetic mutations that cause mesothelioma are yet unknown by oncology researchers. As such, doctors rely on a number of risk factors that have been known to increase an individual’s risk of mesothelioma. Approximately one percent of diagnosed patients inherited certain genetic factors that made them more likely to develop the cancer.
Also, factors like cigarette smoking can raise a person’s risk of cancer but, compounded with asbestos exposure, can be a significant factor in developing the disease. Too, radiation exposure (such as the type received for cancer treatment) can cause mesotheliomas to develop in the body – though researchers are still struggling to understand why.
Do Veterans Have a Higher Risk for Mesothelioma?
The U.S. military used asbestos extensively, especially in the Navy (putting Marines at risk, too) and on Army/Air Force and bases. Because it is durable and fireproof, the material was to build ships, submarines, aircraft, vehicles, barracks, and mess halls. Because of this, many servicemen and women (as well as civilian staffers) were exposed to deadly asbestos dust and fibers.
If you were exposed to asbestos while enlisted in the United States Armed Forces and developed mesothelioma or another asbestos-caused illness as a result, you may be eligible for veterans benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Learn more about veterans, asbestos, and mesothelioma, including how to get help filing for VA benefits.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Often, the symptoms of mesothelioma are mistaken for diseases like lung cancer due to their similarity. Thus, early detection and diagnosis are vital for giving a patient an accurate diagnosis and focused, effective treatment. Depending on the location of the tumors, symptoms vary.
Symptoms for the pleural form include:
- Chest pain
- Coughing (with pain)
- Difficulty swallowing
- Lumps under skin on chest
- Shortness of breath
- Unplanned weight loss
Symptoms of the peritoneal form include:
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Swelling in the gut
- Unplanned weight loss
Signs that you may have other mesotheliomas are harder to detect, due to their rarity. Sometimes, the pericardial form will be accompanied by chest pain and trouble breathing. Regrettably, this form is most often diagnosed during an autopsy.
Symptoms of mesotheliomas of the tunica vaginalis include swelling or lumps on the testicles.
When doctors first suspect a patient has cancer, they order a series of screening tests that typically include imaging tests (like X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans) and tissue biopsies. More complex versions of these tests are also commonly used to determine the patient’s stage of cancer. Presently, only pleural mesothelioma has an official staging system; the Butchart system grades cancer from 1 to 4 based on the spread of tumors. Conversely, the Brigham systems stages cancer from 1 to 4 based on the spread via lymph nodes and how removable the tumors are.
First developed by the International Mesothelioma Interest Group, the TNM system (tumor-node-metastasis) measures the size of tumors, the involvement of lymph nodes, and how far the tumors have metastasized (i.e., spread throughout the body).
For other mesotheliomas, doctors may use standard 1 through 4 staging models approved by the American Joint Committee on Cancer, though no official staging systems have been approved for peritoneal or pericardial forms.
Veterans with mesothelioma can take action without affecting their benefits.
As most patients are diagnosed with an advanced stage, treatment for malignant mesothelioma typically involves multiple types of cancer therapy. In most hospitals, the four most common types of treatment for the disease are chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and targeted therapy. In addition to these care modalities, immunotherapy medications are being tested in clinical trials to help each patient’s body recognize and attack cancer cells.
While some patients may be able to cure their mesothelioma with proper diagnosis and treatment, many people are only able to receive palliative, end-of-life care. Usually, these patients receive altered versions of the same types of treatment as those with earlier stages of the disease. For instance, chemotherapy may be used before or after curative surgery to shrink tumors too small for resection, but it may also be used to shrink tumors too numerous to remove that are blocking an airway.
A cancer care team of doctors, nurses, and pharmacists will work together to coordinate the most effective treatment for each patient. For more information about cancer care as well as legal options for compensation, read our free mesothelioma guide for veterans.