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Pleural mesothelioma is a cancer that develops in the tissue lining the chest cavity and the lungs. It is the most common type of mesothelioma, making up about 75 percent of the cases. Although there is no cure for this often fatal disease, patients do have treatment options to help extend their lives and limit their pain and suffering.

What is the main cause of pleural mesothelioma?

The only known cause of pleural mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos, which many people unfortunately have come across in their everyday lives. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration warns that asbestos can be found in common industrial and household building materials such as:

  • Thermal system insulation
  • Roofing and siding shingles
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Plaster, cement, putty and caulk
  • Ceiling tiles and spray-on coatings
  • Industrial pipe wrapping
  • Heat-resistant textiles
  • Automotive brakes and clutches

People who work in certain occupations — particularly industrial workers, construction workers, mechanics and veterans — face greater risks of developing pleural mesothelioma due to their increased exposure to asbestos. However, pleural mesothelioma has also been diagnosed in those with limited asbestos exposure, such as family members who come into contact with microscopic asbestos fibers transferred from loved ones’ clothes or uniforms.

Although the U.S. government has recognized since 1918 that asbestos posed a health risk to workers, the fight to completely ban asbestos has not yet been won. The deadly material can still be found throughout New York City, New York State and the Tri-state area.

How does pleural mesothelioma develop?

People who work directly with or even around materials containing asbestos are at risk of inhaling microscopic asbestos fibers. These fibers can lodge in the mesothelium tissue lining the chest cavity and the lungs. This lining, called the pleura, coats the lungs and makes it easy for a person to breathe by allowing the lungs to expand and contract comfortably. A large majority of mesothelioma cases originate in the pleura.

Once a person is exposed to asbestos, the tiny fibers can be lodged in their body for years, causing irritation and scarring in the tissue. It can take anywhere from 15 to 60 years for pleural mesothelioma to develop, which is why a diagnosis may come as a shock to victims who were exposed decades earlier.

What are the common symptoms of pleural mesothelioma?

Pleural mesothelioma symptoms are similar to symptoms experienced with less severe respiratory and other diseases, making the cancer difficult to diagnose. Common pleural mesothelioma symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Fluid build-up around the lungs, also known as pleural effusion
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Chronic, dry or painful cough
  • Loss of appetite or difficulty swallowing
  • Lumps under the skin of the chest
  • Fatigue

If you or a loved one has been exposed to asbestos and is experiencing any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor immediately and explain your history with asbestos.

How is the pleural mesothelioma diagnosis made?

People suffering from pleural mesothelioma typically first experience symptoms related to pleural effusion, which occurs when fluid builds up around the lungs. Symptoms such as a dry cough or shortness of breath can prompt doctors to treat the pleural effusion, but they may not make the pleural mesothelioma diagnosis right away.

It is imperative for people who have been exposed to asbestos to discuss this with their doctor when they first start experiencing symptoms. The earlier a pleural mesothelioma diagnosis is made, the better, because the cancer is aggressive and can spread quickly to an advanced stage.

Common diagnostic methods for pleural mesothelioma include:

  • Thoracentesis, which involves using a needle to drain fluid from around the lung. The procedure can make it easier for patients to breathe, but fluid tests are not always accurate in diagnosing pleural mesothelioma.
  • Diagnostic imaging tests such as X-rays, CT scans and MRIs can help identify the location of the cancer, but they cannot confirm a pleural mesothelioma diagnosis specifically.
  • A biopsy or a pleuroscopy (camera-assisted biopsy), which involves taking a sample of the tissue, can be the most effective way to make a pleural mesothelioma diagnosis.

When a pleural mesothelioma diagnosis is made, the doctor will also determine the stage of the cancer. Pleural mesothelioma treatment options will depend on the stage, the age of the patient and other factors. Cancer.gov defines the stages as:

Stage I (Localized): In Stage IA, cancer is found in one side of the chest wall lining and may be in the chest cavity lining or the lining covering the diaphragm. But the cancer has not spread to the lining covering the lung. In Stage IB, cancer is found in one side of the chest wall lining and the lining covering the lung. Cancer may also be found in the chest cavity lining between the lungs or the lining covering the diaphragm.

Stage II (Advanced): Cancer has spread beyond Stage I into the lung tissue and/or the diaphragm.

Stage III (Advanced): Cancer has spread beyond Stage II and into either:

The lymph nodes where the lung joins the bronchus; along the trachea and esophagus; between the lung and diaphragm; or below the trachea.

or

The tissue between the ribs and the chest wall lining; the fat between the lungs; the chest wall’s soft tissues; the sac surrounding the heart; or possibly the lymph nodes where the lung joins the bronchus, along the trachea and esophagus, between the lung and diaphragm, or below the trachea.

Stage IV (Advanced): Cancer is found in one or both sides of the body and has spread beyond the point where surgery would be an option. It may be found in lymph nodes, the ribs, the spine, brain, heart, thyroid, prostate or other organs.

What are the treatment options for pleural mesothelioma?

Although there is no cure for pleural mesothelioma, there are a variety of treatment options to extend the patient’s life and make him or her more comfortable. And the earlier a pleural mesothelioma diagnosis is made, the better chances for treatment. Pleural mesothelioma treatments include (but are not limited to):

  • Surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible. This treatment option is more likely in patients with Stage I or II pleural mesothelioma.
  • Chemotherapy to stop the spread of cancer cells.
  • Radiation to target specific areas of cancer cells.
  • Clinical trials to test new treatments that are not yet on the market.

Doctors often treat pleural mesothelioma with a combination of these methods. They may also recommend other options to reduce pain and keep the patient comfortable.

What is the prognosis for patients with pleural mesothelioma?

Each year in New York and throughout the United States, about 2,500 to 3,000 people are diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, according to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation. The American Cancer Society estimates the median survival time for pleural mesothelioma patients at 12 to 21 months, depending on the stage at which the cancer is diagnosed. Health, age, gender and the type of cancer cells detected are also factors in a person’s prognosis.

No matter what the prognosis is for you or your loved one, though, know that you are not alone. There is a whole community of medical professionals, caregivers, patients, and advocates here to help you through your journey.

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