What is mesothelioma (asbestos cancer), and how does it differ to other cancers?

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer commonly associated with exposure to asbestos. It typically starts in the layers of tissue that cover the lungs (pleural mesothelioma), although it occasionally begins in the tissue in the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma) surrounding the digestive system organs and in the lining of the heart (pericardial mesothelioma).

Diagnosis of asbestos cancer (including mesothelioma and lung carcinoma) can be difficult as symptoms are similar to those of more minor, respiratory conditions. Shortness of breath, chest pain, or a chronic cough may lead doctors to suspect mesothelioma, especially if the patient is known to have been exposed to asbestos. Diagnosis of asbestos cancer is usually achieved via CT scans and MRIs. Usually, these imaging scans can provide a detailed picture of the tumour, but a biopsy is usually needed to provide a definite diagnosis of mesothelioma, rather than other lung cancers.

 

Treatment for mesothelioma

Treatment for this type of cancer usually includes a combination of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Depending on where the cancer is located, malignancies can be difficult to cut out. The reason for this is that during the time in which is the cancer goes undetected, the tumour grows and develops. It’s often not possible to surgically remove asbestos-related cancers. If surgery is possible to remove the tumour, chemotherapy is then usually administered to complement the resection.

Pleurectomy and extrapleural pneumonectomy are both complex surgeries and are frequently used in treating pleural asbestos cancer. Surgery is less common in malignant peritoneal and pericardial cancer as the tumour is often difficult to access without endangering the patient’s life.

Chemotherapy is the most common form of treatment for asbestos cancer. Drugs such as Cisplatin, Alimta® and Gemcitabine have all been used to stop or slow the spread of mesothelioma, each with varying degrees of success. New drugs continue to be tested in ongoing clinical trials, and recent trends point to researchers making strides in determining approved treatments.

 

Pleural Mesothelioma vs. Lung Cancer

Whilst pleural mesothelioma and lung cancer can both result from asbestos exposure, they are very separate cancers and there are vital differences between them. Pleural mesothelioma affects the lungs; however, it is not a type of lung cancer. This is because it begins in the lining of the lungs, rather than the lung tissue itself.

These two forms of cancer begin in different locations, yet they cause very similar symptoms, including chest pain, shortness of breath, weight loss and fatigue. With both cancers, symptoms usually arise late, making them difficult to treat.

Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapies are used to treat both conditions, however the treatment plans differ, as what works for one cancer won’t work for the other. One treatment that has been used on both cancers is photodynamic therapy, however, it’s much more commonly used on lung cancer. Lung cancer tumours are usually well-defined masses that are easier to target for treatment, whereas mesothelioma tumours are spread thinly over health tissue, making them more difficult to target.

Mesothelioma is a much rarer condition than lung cancer, with approximately 2,500 people dying from the condition each year in the UK. In comparison 35,000 die from lung cancer per year. Mesothelioma is caused primarily by asbestos exposure, whilst lung cancer is caused by smoking and air pollution, as well as asbestos exposure.

Asbestos exposure is a serious risk to health. Asbestos materials should be managed to ensure they are kept in a safe condition. If you need help managing asbestos call us on 01604 648928 today!

Neil Munro

I work in a dual role at Acorn Analytical Services focused primarily on growing and leading the business from our Northampton office base. My focus is on overseeing all sales, marketing and financial activities from Northampton. I assist clients with high-level asbestos management strategies and training. Together with Ian Stone I host our weekly podcast – Asbestos Knowledge Empire and I'm Co-author of Asbestos The Dark Arts and Fear and Loathing of Health and Safety.

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