Of all terminal diseases to exist today, the most terrifying is cancer. As per a report published by The World Health Organization in 2020, cancer was declared the leading cause of fatalities worldwide, taking the lives of over 10 million people. Of the many lethal forms of this disease, the highest prevailing is lung cancer, accounting for 2 million deaths annually. The illness, which can affect any organ of the body, starts slow but progresses rapidly and degrades everything that comes in its way. Rehabilitation and survival are still possible if the tumor is detected during its development. Nonetheless, delay in diagnosis could be the only difference between life and death. Once the disease has established its grounds, the damage becomes irreversible.
Mesothelioma is a rare but aggressive example of cancer that affects the mesothelial cells within the linings of various body organs. It begins when foreign invaders trigger mutations within the DNA of healthy cells. Genetically mutated cells behave abnormally and replicate at speed much faster than normal, leading to a malignant mass of cancerous cells. The tumor forms a parasitic attachment with the host’s body, depleting all its machinery, vitalities, and nutrition to further its development.
Recovery is mostly dependent on the severity of the situation and the extent of spread. The tumor is still relatively small in the initial stages and can be resected through surgical procedures. But with time, it integrates itself deeper into the host’s body, making treatment complex and barely successful. Indeed, in cases of mesothelioma, an early diagnosis and swift treatment are critical steps to managing it.
Mesothelioma cancer can be classified into four main types:
This type affects the mesothelial cells within the pleura, a double-layered membranous covering enveloping the lungs. It functions to protect vital organs of the respiratory system and facilitates breathing. Nearly 90% of all cases diagnosed are of pleural mesothelioma. Patients diagnosed at stage 1 have a life expectancy of almost three years. While those at stage 4 can barely survive for 12 months with the help of treatments and medications.
It’s the second most common form of mesothelioma, making up 8% of the cases reported. It invades the mesothelial cells within the peritoneum, a thin layer of connective tissue that encapsulates the abdominal cavity. It holds and supports critical digestive system organs and acts as a conduit for nerves and blood vessels. Patients have a life expectancy of a year, but survival rates are significantly higher for those who qualify for surgery.
It’s a rare form of mesothelioma that accounts for only 1% of the cases diagnosed. It develops within the mesothelium of the pericardium, a double-layered sac that sheathes and protects the heart. It secretes small amounts of lubricating fluid to prevent friction and ease contraction and expansion. Life expectancy ranges between 6 – 15 months with palliative care and chemotherapy.
This type is perhaps the rarest form of mesothelioma with a life expectancy of 20 months. It mutates healthy mesothelium within tunica vaginalis, the mesothelium lined pouch of serous membrane that covers the male testes.
The precise cause behind mesothelioma is unknown, but researchers are working tirelessly to reach a definitive conclusion. Scientists believe that a combination of genetic predisposition, environmental hazards, and lifestyle factors are responsible. Several studies also demonstrate a clear link between mesothelioma and asbestos exposure. This mineral is naturally present within the environment. It is used in construction to make roofing, ceiling, shingles, brakes, insulating covers, floor tiles, and caskets. It has superb tensile strength and is highly resistant to heat and electric current, making it useful yet deadly.
Although asbestos doesn’t do much harm in its raw state, when disintegrated, it transitions into tiny fibers that can be inhaled/ingested. Long-term and repeated exposure can cause these toxic particles to become trapped within the lining of organs, where they release harmful chemicals. The interference of foreign particles triggers inflammation and mutations, causing cells to multiply uncontrollably. It eventually leads to the formation of mesothelioma.
While the symptoms vary from patient to patient, they depend largely on the severity of the spread and the diagnosed stage.
Stage 1: The tumor is localized to only one part of the chest at the initial stage. Mutations begin developing within the mesothelial cells of the external layer – visceral pleura from where they proceed to damage the internal layer – parietal. Barely any mesothelioma case is detected at stage 1 due to a lack of visible symptoms.
Stage 2: Once the cancerous cells get a hold of the host’s nutrition, they rapidly latch onto surrounding nerves and tissues, thus integrating deeper into the body. As malignancy spreads towards the diaphragm (a muscle below the ribcage that facilitates breathing) and the peritoneal cavity, visible signs of distress start to appear. Most symptoms resemble the common cold, including cough, wheezing, and breathing issues.
Stage 3: After stage 2, the condition becomes terminal as spreading cancer entails more damage. The malignant mass has now managed to invade a major chunk of the mediastinum, space that separates the two lungs and progresses towards the lymph nodes with vital respiratory organs compromised. Patients struggle to breathe and can only breathe properly when sitting upright. They also suffer from consistent fever, night sweats, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, chest pain, and irregular heart rhythms.
Stage 4: At the final stage of mesothelioma, illness is far too widespread and can longer be contained. The malignancy, which was first restricted to one side of the chest, has spread to the second lung, diaphragm, ribcage, and lymph nodes. With access to the lymphatic system, the cancerous cells can easily travel to distant organs, compromising the integrity of the whole body. Patients experience major respiratory loss and require assistive devices like ventilators to breathe. Other symptoms include bloating, weight loss, hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, swelling and pain in the upper arms, severe headache, and dizziness.
Regardless of the organ it affects, cancer is a fatal illness that impacts the patient physically and mentally, leaving behind scars that last a lifetime. While the disease cannot be eliminated, it can be reduced. Those who work in risky environments must be educated about harmful substances like asbestos. They must take proper precautions, wear relevant PPE, and schedule regular check-ups to detect potentially worrying changes before they become life-threatening.