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As is the case with any type of cancer, the earlier it’s caught, the better the prognosis will be. What makes mesothelioma such a difficult cancer to beat is, in part, its latency period, which can be anywhere from 20 to 50 years, making it difficult to successfully diagnose and treat the disease early on. Not only do early symptoms not arise until the cancer’s later stages, but they are also easily mistaken with those of common, minor illnesses. Most patients aren’t diagnosed until stage III or IV. So, how can individuals increase their chances of diagnosing this deadly disease as early as possible?
Knowing the symptoms, risks, and how to effectively communicate with your doctor should help the chances of catching this disease earlier, thus improving the prognosis for anyone with a positive diagnosis.
Know the Symptoms
Again, it’s difficult to determine mesothelioma as the cause of its associated symptoms. Early signs are similar to everyday aches and pains and other symptoms of minor illnesses or other lung-related diseases. However, a combination of knowing what to look or feel for and being educated on the risk factors can help both you and your doctor determine the cause of any symptoms you may be experiencing.
While symptoms vary depending on the type of mesothelioma (pleural, peritoneal, pericardial, or testicular), common early signs and symptoms of mesothelioma which may also be difficult to understand at first glance include:
- Hemoptysis, or coughing up blood
- Dyspnea, or shortness of breath and trouble breathing
- Pleural effusions
At the same time, there is often a disconnect between knowing a symptom and how that symptom expresses itself in the body. Does what you’re feeling match the symptom? It’s important to translate symptom labels into what the body actually feels like.
Knowing whether or not what you’re feeling is something called dyspnea can help in diagnosing pleural mesothelioma in stage II. Pleural mesothelioma, which affects the thin lining of the lung and chest wall known as the pleura, leads to a thickening of this membrane in stage II. This thickening is caused by scarring brought on by asbestos inhalation and tumor growth.
The thickening itself leads to a host of respiratory issues, specifically difficulty breathing and shortness of breath, a condition known as dyspnea. Some patients have described this as feeling like a truck is parked on their chest, making it difficult to get enough air. Your chest may feel tight along with a sense of suffocation, or even panic. Given that dyspnea is common in other lung-related diseases, a proper medical evaluation is necessary to determine whether or not the cause is mesothelioma.
A symptom that may be present as early as stage I of pleural mesothelioma is known as pleural effusion — a collection of fluid between the layers of the pleura. As an internal symptom, how would someone be able to tell if they had it? Pleural effusions are known to cause fever, body aches, chest pain, and coughing. Similar effusions can also be present in the abdominal cavity in peritoneal mesothelioma causing abdominal pain, bowel obstructions, and unexplained weight loss, or in the lining of the heart sac in pericardial mesothelioma causing dyspnea and chest pain.
Again, this is why mesothelioma is difficult to diagnose early on; the physical expression of these symptoms are present in common, non-threatening illnesses as well. However, noting the persistence of these signs along with understanding your potential history with the risk factors of mesothelioma (discussed later) can aid in making an early and accurate diagnosis.
Hemoptysis, or coughing up blood, is a symptom most common in pleural mesothelioma. In most cases, hemoptysis is determined to be a non life-threatening symptom. However, when caused by coughing or present alongside dyspnea or chest pain, it can be a sign of a severe condition, including mesothelioma.
Depending on the brightness or depth of color and consistency of the expelled blood, the source of the hemoptysis can be the trachea, bronchi, or lungs. Even though bloodied mucus is often associated with minor causes, the symptom should be addressed right away and monitored in terms of persistence and consistency.
Know the Risk Factors
As you can see, simply knowing the symptoms is rarely enough to come to an early mesothelioma diagnosis. This is why it’s equally important to be educated on the risk factors and causes of mesothelioma. Knowing if you’ve been made vulnerable can help make you more proactive if any of the aforementioned early signs and symptoms arise.
The primary risk factor in developing mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Asbestos fibers can be inhaled or swallowed, penetrating into the linings and membranes of the lungs, stomach, and other organs. Wherever they land, they can alter the DNA of what’s known as mesothelial cells in the body. This leads to rapid and uncontrollable cell growth and eventually mesothelioma.
The United States has a long and troubled history with this substance, which is alarmingly still not illegal in the country. Individuals who are most evidently at risk include construction workers, military personnel, and anyone who works or lives in older buildings that may contain asbestos. Even family members of those who may have unknowingly carried the substance home on their clothing are at risk.
Talk to Your Doctor
While everyone knows the importance of regular exams, many rarely make it a priority to make regular appointments However, being proactive about your health can also aid in catching disease early.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions and bring up any symptoms you may be experiencing, no matter how minor, to allow for consistent monitoring and documentation. Be honest about your medical history and any background information that may put you at risk.
If you feel you may have been exposed to asbestos and are exhibiting any possible symptoms, make an appointment with your physician to discuss next steps.