Perhaps one of the deadliest and most terrifying illnesses to exist in the world today is cancer. Nearly 9.8 million people lose their lives to this lethal condition every year, making it the leading cause of fatalities worldwide.
Cancer latches onto the victim like a parasite and spreads rapidly across the entire body degrading every organ and system in its path. Those who get diagnosed at earlier stages still have a fair shot at recovery, but a slight delay in detection could mean the difference between life and death. If allowed to progress cancer becomes terminal leaving a negligible chance of survival. Indeed, it is a sickness that impacts victims psychologically and physically leaving behind scars that last a lifetime.
Mesothelioma is a rare but highly aggressive form of cancer that affects the mesothelial cells within the linings of various organs. Membranous coverings protect and support critical organs while facilitating their function.
Like most cancers, mesothelioma begins with a few mutations within the DNA of healthy mesothelium. Genetically altered cells malfunction and behave abnormally multiplying at a pace much faster than normal. The accumulation of damaged cells leads to the formation of a malignant tumor called mesothelioma.
At its initial stages, the cancerous growth is localized to a specific organ, but with progression, the malignancy becomes stronger and integrates deeper into the victim’s body. The resulting treatment is often challenging and often ineffective. Hence, early diagnosis and prompt treatment are key to recovery. Education and awareness are therefore critical to staying on top of your health.
We have made a free guide available for your ease that intends to inform the average citizen about the sneaky causes behind this illness and symptoms to look out for.
Based on the region afflicted, we can classify mesothelioma into two main groups:
- Pleural mesothelioma occurs within the double-layered membranous lining of the lungs, called the pleura. Nearly 90% of all reported cases are that of pleural mesothelioma.
- Peritoneal mesothelioma affects the mesothelium surrounding the digestive system and abdominal cavity. Causes
While research is still ongoing to figure out the definitive cause behind mesothelioma, scientists believe that genetic predisposition, environmental and lifestyle factors come into play. Studies have also demonstrated a strong link between disease development and occupational asbestos exposure. It is a natural mineral within the environment that is utilized in construction to make brakes, shingles, roofing, ceilings, and insulating cover. The material has high tensile strength, is non-degradable, and is resistant to both heat and electricity, characteristics that make it beneficial but also lethal. When disintegrated, asbestos transitions into minuscule toxin fibers, which can easily be inhaled or ingested and settle down within the linings of various organs, this buildup releases chemicals and carcinogens that irritate and trigger an inflammatory response. Repeated exposure causes healthy cells to malfunction, thus forming a malignant mass.
Mesothelioma develops in 4 stages, each more severe than the one before it. With every passing stage life expectancy and the chance of survival reduce significantly:
**Stage 1A: The mutation begins when the genetic integrity of healthy mesothelial cells within the external layer known as the visceral pleura is compromised. The damage is currently limited to one side of the chest only.
**Stage 1B: Cancer has now taken over the victim’s body, using host machinery and nutrition to further its development. The malignancy soon invades the internal layer – parietal pleura and makes its way towards immediately surrounding organs. Symptoms at this point are barely visible as no significant damage has occurred.
**Stage 2: Mutations stemming from the pleural membrane have progressed to the lymph nodes. Cancerous mass is no longer localized and has invaded many respiratory organs like the diaphragm and mediastinum (space between the two lungs). Symptoms have also started becoming visible and resemble the cold; patients experience cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
**Stage 3: Beyond stage 2, the illness spreads at a much faster pace. With the mediastinum now fully degraded, the second lung is also at risk. Furthermore, the malignancy has spread to at least one of the critical organs, such as the heart, abdomen, or ribcage. Although widespread, cancer still hasn’t managed to affect the lymphatic system.
As cancer spreads and damage increases, symptoms become more severe, and patients cannot breathe unless they are seated upright. Not only do they struggle with immense pain in the upper arm and shoulder, but they also experience vomiting, nausea, loss of appetite, and consistently high fever.
**Stage 4: This is the final and the most critical stage of mesothelioma. The disease, initially affecting one side of the chest, has now spread to the heart and lungs and to surrounding nerves and tissues. Having strong control over the lymphatic system, cancerous cells and their toxins can easily enter the bloodstream and reach distant organs, compromising the integrity of the entire body.
At this point, the damage has become beyond repair, and the spread cannot be contained. With most respiratory organs degraded, patients need assistive devices, such as ventilators, to breathe effectively.
Lack of visible symptoms makes detecting mesothelioma difficult during its initial developmental stages. However, those diagnosed early have a higher chance of recovery and survival. Professionals start by getting a clear picture of the lungs with a chest x-ray and CT scan when they notice any trouble. The next step is a biopsy to draw a precise conclusion. A small amount of tissue or fluid from the patient’s lung is taken and examined in detail to determine the type of mesothelioma, its extent of spread, and its severity. Finally, a patient-specific treatment plan is drafted based on the stage at which the illness is detected.
Treatment largely depends on the stage at which the illness is diagnosed and the extent of spread. If detected early, the chances of recovery are much higher. But if left undiagnosed and untreated, cancer strengthens its grounds and reaches a stage where the damage can no longer be contained or reversed.
At stage 1 or 2, the tumor confines itself to a specific region. It is small enough to be resected from its core—Doctors couple surgery with chemo and radiation therapy to destroy cancerous cells and prevent any chances of recurrence.
Beyond stage 2, patients usually don’t qualify for surgery as the tumor has latched itself into surrounding critical nerves, organs, and tissues making removal risky and complex. While curing cancer at this stage is next to impossible, doctors can provide treatments, drugs, and palliative care to help increase patients’ life expectancy and survival rates.
Palliative care includes procedures designed to minimize painful symptoms, delay tumor progression, diminish cancerous cell growth, and ultimately help patients live normal lives. Some common palliative care treatments include:
- Thoracentesis, commonly called pleural tap, is an invasive procedure. Using a large needle to eliminate excess fluid build-up within the pleural cavity, it relieves pressure, alleviates pain, and facilitates proper breathing.
- Chemotherapy uses therapeutic drugs to destroy fast-growing cancer cells and degrade their replication ability. These medications are often combined with several bouts of radiation therapy to expose the surface of cancerous cells and make them an easy target for destruction.
- Pleurodesis is a surgical procedure during which a tube attached to a catheter is inserted into the pleural sac, and excess fluid is drained into containers.
- Pericardiocentesis is similar to thoracentesis. However, it involves draining secretory fluid that has accumulated within the pericardium.
Lung cancer is known to be the second most common and the highest prevailing cancer in the world. With readily increasing pollution and degrading air quality, this number isn’t expected to go down any time soon. While cancer cannot be eliminated entirely from the face of the earth, the chances of contracting this illness can be reduced. Observing caution, being aware, living a conscious lifestyle, and scheduling regular check-ins with a healthcare professional, are small habits that are bound to keep your health in top-notch condition.