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What are the symptoms of malignant mesothelioma?

The symptoms of mesothelioma are similar to other problems typically associated with aging: shortness of breath, pain in the chest or back, or pain or swelling in the abdomen. Minor symptoms include a difficulty swallowing, cough, fever, sweating, fatigue, and weight loss.

The more severe symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include hoarseness, coughing up blood, swelling of the face and arms, muscle weakness, paralysis, and sensory loss. Peritoneal mesothelioma sufferers may experience pain in the stomach, weight loss, nausea, vomiting, hernia, fluid in the abdominal cavity or a mass in the abdomen.

Some people put off seeing a doctor because they think they are just having normal ailments. But if you've been exposed to asbestos in your younger years, you should see a doctor immediately.

Q. How is mesothelioma diagnosed?
One reason mesothelioma is such a dangerous form of cancer is because by the time it is diagnosed, it has often progressed rapidly. That is why it is so important to see a doctor as soon as you experience any of the symptoms listed above.

It is essential that you give your doctor a complete medical history. Tell the doctor up front whether you were exposed to asbestos at work or through a family member. Also, tell the doctor when and for how long this exposure occurred.

Then be prepared to undergo some tests.

The most basic test is a chest x-ray. The x-ray will show abnormalities around the lungs. It will also show if any fluid has built up inside the lungs. A computed tomography scan, usually called a CT scan, or a magnetic resonance imaging scan, usually called an MRI, will help determine the location, size and mass of a possible cancerous growth.

If pleural mesothelioma is suspected, the doctor may look inside the chest cavity with a special instrument called a thoracoscope. A peritoneoscope is used in a similar procedure to look at the abdomen. The doctor is looking for abnormal cell growths, which will usually be referred to as a tumor.

If such a growth is found, the doctor will cut out a small piece of it to test it for cancerous cells. This procedure is called a biopsy. After looking at the piece of the tumor under a microscope, the doctor may decide that the tumor is benign, which means that it is not cancerous, or that it is malignant, which means that it is cancerous.

If the doctor can't tell from the biopsy if the growth is cancerous or not, there are a few options. The doctor may take a blood sample to see if your blood cell levels are what they are supposed to be, or the doctor may take a sample of any fluid that has built up around the lungs, stomach or heart.

Q. What are the stages of malignant mesothelioma?
Malignant mesothelioma (that is, the cancerous type of mesothelioma, not benign mesothelioma) moves through four stages, each one more severe than the next. It is important that a doctor determine at what stage the cancer is, a process called staging, because each stage requires a different variation of treatment.

Stage I: This stage refers to when the cancerous growth is found in the lining of the lungs, heart or abdomen.

Stage II: The mesothelioma has moved to this stage when it goes from the lining into the lymph nodes.

Stage III: This is when the cancer has spread into the chest wall, center or the chest, heart, diaphragm or stomach.

Stage IV: The most serious stage is met when the cancer has spread into organs that are not part of the lung, heart or abdominal systems, such as the liver, pancreas or colon.

Q. Is there anything I can do to avoid contracting mesothelioma?
Although scientists now understand a lot about how the disease progresses, they have not yet found a way to stop it from starting. The only way to prevent mesothelioma is to prevent exposure to asbestos. Unfortunately, this is like closing the barn door after the horse has already escaped.

Smoking tobacco does not cause mesothelioma, but people who have been exposed to asbestos and who smoke are 50 to 90 times more likely to get lung cancer than those who don't smoke. If you smoke, now is the time to quit.

Q. What kind of treatments or therapies are available?
Research continues daily across the country in an effort to cure and effectively treat mesothelioma. The most common treatments are surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Some new therapies are starting to emerge, and research on new treatment options is ongoing. We will continually monitor this research and update the Information Center in order to provide you with information about research, discoveries, surgeries, treatments, and drugs.

Q. Where can I learn more medical information about mesothelioma?
Often families and loved ones of people suffering with mesothelioma are not given enough information about the disease. One of our goals is to be a resource you can use to guide you to and provide you with additional information about all aspects of mesothelioma.

Q. How do I find a doctor or hospital who can help?
Because mesothelioma is a relatively rare form of cancer, not all doctors have experience with mesothelioma. Some doctors and medical centers that we know of have extensive experience with treating mesothelioma patients. Some cancer centers have experience with all types of cancer. Be sure to choose a doctor you feel comfortable with.

Q. Where can mesothelioma patients, their family and friends turn for help coping with mesothelioma?
Coping with mesothelioma, like other types of cancer, can be especially difficult. There are few support groups specifically for mesothelioma, and these are often informal groups of people who live in the same area or who meet each other in doctors' offices and hospital waiting rooms. There are bigger and more organized support groups for cancer sufferers in general. Choose whatever group you feel the most comfortable with.

Q. What are the types of malignant mesothelioma?
Asbestos breathed into the lungs tears the lung tissue and can cause asbestosis or lung cancer.

The difference between mesothelioma and asbestosis and lung cancer is mesothelioma is cancer in the lining of the lungs, heart and abdomen instead of in the organs themselves.

The chest cavity, abdominal cavity, and the cavity around the heart are all lined by a layer of specialized cells called mesothelial cells. The tissue formed by these cells is called mesothelium.

Some asbestos fibers pierce the pleura, which is the lining that protects the lungs from scraping against your ribs when you breathe. Cancer found here is called pleural mesothelioma. Other fibers get into the lining around the stomach, which is called the peritoneum, causing peritoneal mesothelioma. Still others may get into the pericardium, which is the lining around the heart, causing pericardial mesothelioma.

Pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of the disease. Peritoneal mesothelioma is the next most common form, and pericardial mesothelioma is the most rare. They are all equally dangerous.