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Essential facts - Mesothelioma

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VOL: 102, ISSUE: 20, PAGE NO: 41

Mesothelioma is a malignant cancer that arises in the mesothelium, a thin membrane lining the pleural cavity, pericardium, and the peritoneal cavity. The cause of the disease is exposure to asbestos.

Mesothelioma is a malignant cancer that arises in the mesothelium, a thin membrane lining the pleural cavity, pericardium, and the peritoneal cavity. The cause of the disease is exposure to asbestos.

The condition is largely resistant to the traditional treatments for cancer, including chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Survival from the point of diagnosis is usually between six months and three years, the average being 18 months.

Mesothelioma mostly affects men who worked in the building trade and who were exposed to asbestos, particularly between the 1950s and 1970s, which was before current control regulations were introduced. Family members run a high risk of developing the disease from secondary exposure to the asbestos fibres.

Diagnosis and treatment

Generally, mesothelioma does not cause symptoms in its early stages, but as the disease progresses patients will complain of pain in the lower back or the side of the chest, a persistent cough, shortness of breath, hoarseness, unexplained weight loss, sweating and have difficulty swallowing.

A chest X-ray will often show thickening of the pleura and pleural effusions. A biopsy of the lining of the lung will confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment is usually symptomatic and involves pain relief and drainage of pleural effusions to relieve breathlessness. Pleurodesis (adhesion of the pleural layers) is used to prevent the pleural fluid accumulating.

A pleural biopsy involves putting an instrument through the chest wall, following which the tumour may metastasise through the biopsy site into the skin. This can be prevented from happening by radiotherapy, which can be extremely helpful in controlling any pain.

Medical opinion is divided about the role and benefits of chemotherapy, and patients should be given the opportunity to discuss treatment options with a specialist oncologist and respiratory physician.

Chest surgery is sometimes considered to remove the tumour, but this is a major procedure and is suitable only for a minority of patients.

A coalition lead by the British Lung Foundation is running a campaign this year to raise awareness about mesothelioma

Further information visit www.lunguk.org.

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