General Information About Malignant Mesothelioma
Key Points for This Section
- Malignant mesothelioma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the lining of the chest or abdomen.
- Being exposed to asbestos can affect the risk of malignant mesothelioma.
- Possible signs of malignant mesothelioma include shortness of breath and pain under the rib cage.
- Tests that examine the inside of the chest and abdomen are used to detect (find) and diagnose malignant mesothelioma.
- Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
Malignant mesothelioma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells are found in the pleura (the thin layer of tissue that lines the chest cavity and covers the lungs) or the peritoneum (the thin layer of tissue that lines the abdomen and covers most of the organs in the abdomen). This summary is about malignant mesothelioma of the pleura.
Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Talk to your doctor if you think you may be at risk.
Many people with malignant mesothelioma have worked or lived in places where they inhaled or swallowed asbestos. After being exposed to asbestos, it usually takes a long time for malignant mesothelioma to form. Other risk factors for malignant mesothelioma include the following:
- Living with a person who works near asbestos.
- Being exposed to a certain virus.
Sometimes the cancer causes fluid to collect around the lung or in the abdomen. These symptoms may be caused by the fluid or malignant mesothelioma. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following problems:
- Trouble breathing.
- Pain under the rib cage.
- Pain or swelling in the abdomen.
- Lumps in the abdomen.
- Weight loss for no known reason.
Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between malignant mesothelioma and lung cancer. The following tests and procedures may be used:
- Physical exam and history : An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits, exposure to asbestos, past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
- Chest x-ray : An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
- Complete blood count (CBC): A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following:
- The number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
- The amount of hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen) in the red blood cells.
- The portion of the blood sample made up of red blood cells.
- Sedimentation rate : A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the rate at which the red blood cells settle to the bottom of the test tube.
- Biopsy : The removal of cells or tissues from the pleura or peritoneum so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. Procedures used to collect the cells or tissues include the following:
- Fine-needle (FNA) aspiration biopsy of the lung: The removal of tissue or fluid using a thin needle. An imaging procedure is used to locate the abnormal tissue or fluid in the lung. A small incision may be made in the skin where the biopsy needle is inserted into the abnormal tissue or fluid, and a sample is removed.
- Thoracoscopy : An incision (cut) is made between two ribs and a thoracoscope (a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing) is inserted into the chest.
- Peritoneoscopy: An incision (cut) is made in the abdominal wall and a peritoneoscope (a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing) is inserted into the abdomen.
- Laparotomy : An incision (cut) is made in the wall of the abdomen to check the inside of the abdomen for signs of disease.
- Thoracotomy : An incision (cut) is made between two ribs to check inside the chest for signs of disease.
- Bronchoscopy : A procedure to look inside the trachea and large airways in the lung for abnormal areas. A bronchoscope is inserted through the nose or mouth into the trachea and lungs. A bronchoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.
- Cytologic exam: An exam of cells under a microscope (by a pathologist) to check for anything abnormal. For mesothelioma, fluid is taken from around the lungs or from the abdomen. A pathologist checks the cells in the fluid.
- The stage of the cancer.
- The size of the tumor.
- Whether the tumor can be removed completely by surgery.
- The amount of fluid in the chest or abdomen.
- The patient's age and general health, including lung and heart health.
- The type of mesothelioma cancer cells and how they look under a microscope.
- Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back).