Cancer is perhaps one of the deadliest and most daunting diseases out there. If diagnosed early, the chances are that a person can still recover and get back to everyday life.
But a slight delay can be the difference between life and death, causing the illness to become terminal, leaving minimal chances of survival.
This condition is highly traumatizing for both the victim and their families, leaving behind emotional and physical scars that last a lifetime. One of the rarest and highly lethal forms of cancer that causes irreversible damage is mesothelioma.
What is Mesothelioma?
It is a form of cancer that affects the mesothelial cells present within the membranous coverings surrounding various body organs. Like all other cancers, mesothelioma too starts with a series of mutations within the DNA of healthy cells.
Altered genetic material causes the cells to behave abnormally and multiply. Excessive duplication leads to the formation of a malignant mass of cancerous cells that affects the integrity of the entire organ on a molecular level, causing it to malfunction.
Recovery in mesothelioma cases is mainly dependent on the stage of cancer. At an earlier stage, the tumor is relatively easier to control. But once it has invaded distant organs, it can no longer be contained, making mesothelioma treatment rather complex and often unsuccessful.
Research is still ongoing about the causes behind this fatal ailment, but scientists believe it to be a combination of both hereditary and environmental factors. Mesothelioma is also linked to asbestos exposure, a mineral naturally found in our environment.
In its natural state, asbestos causes no harm. However, when disintegrated, the mineral transitions into minuscule toxic fibers.
With gradual inhalation or ingestion, these particles accumulate within the linings of organs, triggering mutations, allergies, and inflammation.
Stages Of Mesothelioma:
Mesothelioma develops in a series of 4 stages, each worse than the one before it. With each passing stage, cancer progresses, grows in size, and suppresses the body’s immune system.
Stage 1A: The tumor is only limited to one side of the chest at this stage. Symptoms are barely visible as no noticeable harm occurs. Healthy mesothelial cells within the parietal pleura (external layer) mutate and start malfunctioning.
Cancerous cells latch on to the victim like a parasite and utilize all their nutrition to grow and divide. Although the tumor is multiplying in size, it is still restricted to its point of origin. It hasn’t affected any organs beyond the outer lining of the lungs.
Stage 1B: This stage is slightly more advanced as the malignant mass has now spread to the parietal pleura (internal layer) closer to the lung. It is still localized to only one side but slowly makes its way to the immediate surrounding organs and tissues.
Cancer may invade the diaphragm – a muscle below the ribcage assisting in contraction and expansion. If not, it may affect the mediastinum that is the space between your lungs.
Stage 2: Th symptoms of the illness become more visible with the rapidly growing malignancy. The patient starts experiencing a chronic cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath even when doing mundane tasks like walking or talking.
Mesothelioma, which was first limited, has now metastasized. It is crossing the pleural lining and is growing towards the lymph nodes. It is also gradually progressing towards the lymph nodes and making its way to distant organs.
Till stage 2, the cancerous mass is still relatively small enough to be contained and resected.
Stage 3A: Beyond stage 2, the chances of a successful surgical operation are negligible. Only very few patients can qualify for a procedure. Even though the tumor has fully developed, it hasn’t invaded the lymphatic system.
At this stage, cancer has damaged both the layers of the pleura. It has latched on to distant organs like the diaphragm and has invaded a significant chunk of the mediastinum.
Stage 3B: Cancer has now bridged the mediastinum and progressing towards the heart and the second lung. The symptoms at this stage are aggressive because a large portion of the respiratory system has been compromised.
Patients struggle with constant fever, night sweats, and pain in the upper arm and shoulders. At stage 3B, cancer has reached at least one of the following organs: the heart, abdomen, spine, or ribcage.
Stage 4: This is the final stage of mesothelioma, a stage at which cancer has spread too far. The chances of recovery and patient’s life expectancy have significantly decreased, and limited options for treatment are available.
The mutations only limited to one side of the chest have now afflicted both the lungs and invaded the body’s lymphatic system.
With the lymph nodes compromised and critical organs like the abdomen, heart, and brain at risk of permanent damage, it’s safe to say that cancer has spread into the entire body.
Treatment plans vary depending on the stage at which the diagnosis occurs and the extent of spread. If diagnosed at earlier stages, the tumor is still small enough for removal.
Doctors recommend surgery to resect the tumor, along with chemotherapy and immunotherapy to eliminate any remaining cancerous cells. Patients have a much higher chance of survival and recovery at stages 1 and 2.
Once the tumor has fully developed and attached itself to surrounding nerves, tissues, and tension, its removal becomes complex and risky. Since the damage is now irreversible, complete recovery is no longer an option.
While doctors cannot offer treatment, they can provide care to struggling patients and help them cope with their illnesses. Depending on the patient’s circumstances, professionals draft a treatment plan that combines palliative, chemotherapy, radiation, and medications.
Through this plan, they intend to slow down the spread, delay the progression and help patients manage symptoms of this disease. It helps increase their life duration and keeps them comfortable during this stressful time. Common palliative care procedures for mesothelioma include:
- Thoracentesis – using a needle to remove excess fluid build-up within the pleura
- Pleurodesis – removal of the space between two layers of pleura to prevent fluid accumulation
- Radiation – used along with chemotherapy to reduce the symptoms, pain and help shrink the size of the growing tumor
- Paracentesis – like thoracentesis, but a needle is used to remove fluid built in the peritoneum and reduce pressure on the abdomen
- Pericardiocentesis – removal of fluid accumulating in the pericardium to decrease the pressure on the heart
Cancers, regardless of their type, have a significant impact on the body’s immune system. Treatment is complex because specialists need to remove cancer from the root. Cancer can recur with the same strength even if a single mutated cell is left behind.
Prevention is, therefore, a hundred times better than a cure. Educating yourself, developing healthier habits, and making the necessary lifestyle changes are all small but effective practices that’ll keep you out of harm’s way.