Mesothelioma is a devastating disease typically resulting from prolonged exposure to asbestos particles. Carcinogenesis of the normal cells in the mesothelium – the lining of the lungs and other organs – occurs after a lengthy latency period.
Though mesothelioma began as a rare cancer, it is has impacted people around the globe. Due to the vast and varying practical applications of asbestos, and the sheer number of individuals handling the material, it is no surprise there has been such an increase in the number of cases being diagnosed. As the working population ages, the medical community is striving to improve protocols for early detection testing and treatment for mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma cancer commonly occurs in either the lungs or abdomen, but can affect other organs including the heart, though it is rare. In some cases, mesothelioma can spread to other organs including the liver or spleen.
Nearly seventy-five percent of mesothelioma diagnoses are pleural mesothelioma, where the mesothelium around the lungs becomes cancerous. With repeated exposure to asbestos or erionite, fibrous particles become lodged in the lungs, and after a considerable incubation period – sometimes as long as forty years –symptoms begin to present as a result of carcinogenesis.
The second most common form is peritoneal mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the abdomen, primarily through accidental or unintentional ingestion of asbestos particles. Erionite particles are rarely ingested. With this type of mesothelioma, if untreated, the cancer can spread to surrounding organs.
Infrequently, mesothelioma is found in the mesothelium of the heart. Pericardial mesothelioma comprises a very small percentage of all mesothelioma diagnoses. As with all types of mesothelioma, the protective lining around the organ is invaded, obstructing and restricting the natural function.
As a rule, many symptoms of pleural mesothelioma can be mistaken for other diseases like pneumonia or influenza, but the aggressiveness of mesothelioma symptoms differentiates it from all other types of illness.
In pleural and pericardial mesothelioma, one of the most common symptoms is persistent chest pain. As the cancerous mesothelium spreads, it virtually prohibits the function of the organs – breathing or pumping blood – resulting in extreme pain.
Pain is caused as the pleural mesothelioma spreads, compressing the chest and surrounding areas. Localized pain may result from growing mesothelioma; generalized pain, from widespread cell damage.
Difficulty breathing or swallowing, shortness of breath and coughing may cause chest pain. When the lungs are struggling to regulate breathing and are fighting an invading cancer, it is common to have associated chest pain. For pleural mesothelioma, as the cancer spreads to the lining of the lungs, the esophagus becomes constricted, radiating pain throughout the chest.
Dysphagia or difficulty swallowing can extend down the throat radiating pain to the chest. Shortness of breath occurs when the lungs are not functioning at full capacity, causing an individual to struggle to breathe. Pressure or pleural effusion – buildup of fluid in the chest – can lead to shortness of breath and pain.
Coughing can also cause pain, resulting from shortness of breath or pleural effusion. Gasping for air can throb and radiate pain throughout the entire chest cavity.
Pericardial mesothelioma is an extremely rare mesothelioma cancer, though chest pain is a frequent symptom. Since the lining of the heart is damaged, it affects the natural muscular rhythm. If the heart is struggling to beat against the damaged lining, emanating pain can result. As the affected cells envelop the sac, the heart struggles to regulate and beat properly. For many individuals, the spreading mesothelioma in the heart causes extraordinary pain in the chest. Many individuals with pericardial mesothelioma think they are presenting classic symptoms of a heart attack, as the pain is that great.
Generally, chest pain is not a symptom found with peritoneal mesothelioma.
Malignant mesothelioma is a devastating disease that can affect vital organs, including lungs, heart, stomach, liver or spleen. Most, if not all, symptoms of mesothelioma are interconnected, often exacerbating pain and suffering.
If there is a known prolonged exposure to asbestos and chest pain becomes a chronic problem, seek immediate medical care.
Mayo Clinic. Mesothelioma Symptoms. Accessed on November 5, 2010.
American Cancer Society. Malignant Mesothelioma Overview. Accessed on November 5, 2010.
National Cancer Institute. Mesothelioma: Questions and Answers. Accessed on November 5, 2010.