For my husband, it all began with a sharp pain in the stomach that came and went. We thought at first it might be just a case of gas or the start of an ulcer. His doctor put him on a stomach acid blocker but it did not help at all. He began to watch his diet and stopped eating certain types of food and drink.
As time went on, his symptoms became worse. Every time he ate he would feel bloated, nauseated and the pains would be more intense. His stomach became distended and hard.
It all came to a head when he was unable to keep any food down at all, not even a glass of water. The doctors discovered that he had a blockage in the small intestine and after the usual non-evasive treatments failed, they decided to operate. They removed two small sections of the intestine and also drained a lot of fluid out of his abdominal cavity.
A week after the operation, the doctors came and told us the results of the pathology report: It was peritoneal mesothelioma. We were totally blind-sided, scared and confused. There are only 200-350 new cases of peritoneal mesothelioma diagnosed every year, and in a blink of the eye my husband became the newest one.
Sept. 26, this coming Saturday, is Mesothelioma Awareness Day. Everyone has probably seen the commercials on television, "If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma..." Yet few people know what mesothelioma really is. Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer and it is almost always malignant with no cure. It develops in the mesothelium of the body; this is the smooth protective membrane that lines many of the body's internal organs such as the lungs, the abdomen and the heart. Mesothelioma most commonly occurs in the lining of the lungs, this is called plural mesothelioma. Three out of every four new mesothelioma diagnoses are the plural variety. But it does not occur only in the lungs. Mesothelioma can also occur in the peritoneum, the lining around the abdomen and is called peritoneal mesothelioma. When it is found in the cavity around the heart it is call pericardial mesothelioma - one of the rarest forms of the disease.
There are other types of mesothelioma as well, including a rare benign variation.
Altogether, there are roughly 3,500 new cases of mesothelioma diagnosed every year. To give you a perspective on just how rare this is, there are about 221,000 cases of lung cancer, 228,000 cases of prostate cancer, 231,000 cases of breast cancer and 130,000 cases of colon cancer diagnosed each year. Even though mesothelioma is very rare, it can happen to anyone; young, old, male or female, it does not discriminate ... it does not care.
The cause of mesothelioma is almost always asbestos related. Over the years asbestos has been used in several industries due to it being a poor conductor of heat and electricity. It was used extensively in construction, automotive manufacturing and similar industries and was also widely used in Navy shipyards. However, not everyone who is exposed to asbestos will develop mesothelioma. No one knows for sure why some people get the disease and others do not. Asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested, and since the body has a hard time destroying or discarding them, they lodge in the lining (the mesothelium) of the internal organs. Over time the irritation from the asbestos fibers cause inflammation, scarring and other damage. In some people the mesothelial cells begin to grow uncontrollably due to the damage caused by the asbestos fibers. Uncontrollable cell growth is what defines cancer.
Mesothelioma has a very long latency period. Symptoms may not begin to show until 10 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos. This makes the disease extremely difficult to catch in the early stages. Usually a person gets the diagnosis after going to the doctor for another complaint.
According to cancer.org, "Many of the early symptoms of mesothelioma are more likely to be caused by other conditions, so at first people may ignore them or mistake them for common, minor ailments. Most people with mesothelioma have symptoms for at least a few months before they are diagnosed."
Common symptoms of plural mesothelioma are: pain in the chest and or back, shortness of breath, cough, fatigue, fever, excessive sweating, weight loss and trouble swallowing. Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma might include: abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, swelling or fluid in the abdomen, weight loss, obstruction of the bowel, night sweats, constipation and swollen ankles. Symptoms most commonly associated with pericardial mesothelioma mimic those of a heart attack: nausea, pain in the chest and shortness of breath.
The symptoms listed above can be caused by mesothelioma but since mesothelioma is so rare it is more likely that they are caused by other conditions. Still, if you have any of these problems, especially if you have a known exposure to asbestos, it's important to see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed.
Life expectancy for people with this disease varies greatly as not every case behaves the same. It mostly depends on the stage of the disease, how early it is caught, age and general health of the patient. If the disease is caught early enough more options are open to the patient, such as surgery and/or a heated chemotherapy treatment.
If the disease is discovered in later stages the treatments are mostly palliative.
There have been great strides made in mesothelioma treatment options in recent years that have prolonged the lives of many. However, more research is needed to find even better ways to treat this deadly disease.
People who have mesothelioma are not called victims; they are called warriors. They have a long, hard fight ahead of them with many battles to overcome. If you would like more information on mesothelioma and asbestos, visit the following websites:
http://www.curemeso.org - the only non-profit organization dedicated to ending mesothelioma and the suffering caused by it, by funding research, providing education and support for patients and their families, and by advocating for federal funding of mesothelioma research.
On Sept. 26th please wear blue to show your support and concern for the people who are fighting this deadly disease. Thank you.
Note: The author's request for anonymity was granted for several reasons. Chief among them is that no one in the community except the family and some staff at KRMC know who is afflicted. The family would like to keep it private for the time being.