Managing symptoms of any disease may even be a greater battle than that of the disease itself. Devastating symptoms can compromise overall health, and affect an individual’s ability to cope with daily life. With mesothelioma, one of the major symptoms of both pleural mesothelioma and peritoneal mesothelioma is weight loss.
Though weight loss may be dismissed at first, as the disease progresses, the weight loss may become more dramatic and further weaken the patient. Depending on where the cancer is lodged, extreme weight loss can be explained, understood and managed. With malignant mesothelioma, weight loss happens as a result of the effect of the cancer on the organs that are involved.
Pleural mesothelioma is the most common type of mesothelioma cancer comprising the majority of mesothelioma diagnoses. Essentially, the lining of the lung or pleura is ravaged with carcinogenic cells. However, a little less common, peritoneal mesothelioma is the second most common mesothelioma diagnosis, where the lining of the abdominal cavity is affected. The rarest mesothelioma cancer is pericardial mesothelioma, where the protective sac surrounded the heart is damaged.
Extreme weight loss as a symptom is often mistaken for another disorder called anorexia nervosa. However, as a symptom of a greater disease, like mesothelioma, extreme weight loss is triggered by serious, underlying conditions. As a symptom of mesothelioma cancer, it is not a neurological disorder, but results from a mechanical or physiological dysfunction. Anorexia nervosa is a devastating disease but is not a symptom of mesothelioma. Individuals suffering from mesothelioma have difficulty ingesting food and liquid rather than choosing not to eat, and the resulting weight loss can be drastic.
To understand weight loss as a symptom of mesothelioma, it is important to look at the various organs that are affected. The mesothelium is a lining in the body cavities. The pleura mesothelium lines the lungs; the peritoneum mesothelium lines the abdominal wall; and the pericardium lines the heart. All mesothelioma is cancer of the mesothelium, and each type of mesothelioma affects a different lining of the affected organ. Mesothelium cells can become abnormal, especially after a prolonged exposure to asbestos, divide uncontrolled, becoming cancerous. This process is known as carcinogenesis or the transformation of normal cells into cancerous cells. These cells can metastasize, affecting other, adjacent organs.
With the two most common forms of mesothelioma, pleural and peritoneal, weight loss signifies variants in the presentation of the cancer.
Pleural mesothelioma weight loss may be due to a combination of other symptoms. Severe cases of dysphagia or difficulty swallowing food or liquids can lead to weight loss. In extreme cases, dysphagia can lead to malnutrition, dehydration and anorexia. Weight naturally fluctuates in a healthy individual, but if the weight loss is more than just a couple of pounds it is not normal and there may be a more severe underlying medical problem.
However, minimal weight loss with pleural mesothelioma may be overlooked and considered normal. If other symptoms, like dysphagia, are present the weight loss may be accounted for. Further, if the onset of weight loss is not within an individual’s normal fluctuating range and is new or progressing quickly, pleural mesothelioma may be the cause.
Peritoneal mesothelioma affects the lining of the abdominal cavity and can cause pain and weight loss. The pain may trigger an individual to not want to eat, or it may be too painful to eat. With additional pressure on the abdominal cavity, the stomach may have more difficulty with digestion.
In peritoneal mesothelioma, the peritoneum is the membrane or lining of the abdominal cavity, composed of mesothelium – The peritoneum reinforces the abdominal organs, and is a channel for blood, lymph nodes and nerves. The visceral peritoneum is the inner protective lining around the abdominal organs, while the parietal peritoneum is outer layer, lining the abdominal cavity. As the abdominal cavity swells from the metastasizing cells, pain in the stomach may result in an inability to eat.
As advances in treatment for mesothelioma are gaining momentum, the aggressive symptoms, like weight loss, are hard to ignore. Working and living with the symptoms can be as challenging as battling the disease. As with treatment, the prognosis for mesothelioma cancer changes as more medical advancements are made. Early detection and monitoring of developing symptoms is always the best way to fight any devastating disease.
If moderate or extreme weight loss is noticed, seek medical attention.
American Cancer Society. Malignant Mesothelioma Overview. Accessed on November 8, 2010.
National Cancer Institute. Mesothelioma: Questions and Answers. Accessed on November 8, 2010.
Alessio Bridda, MD, Third-Year Resident in General Surgery, Ilaria Padoan, MD, Third-Year Resident in Pathology, Roberto Mencarelli, MD, Staff Physician and Mauro Frego, MD, Assistant Professor of Surgery. Department of Surgical and Gastroenterological Sciences, University of Padua. Peritoneal Mesothelioma: A Review. May, 10, 2007. Accessed on November 8, 2010.
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Accessed on November 8, 2010.