Of all terminal illnesses out there, the deadliest and most daunting has to be cancer. If diagnosed early, the chances are that a person can still qualify for treatment, recover, and eventually bet back to their life. But a slight delay in detection could be the only difference between life and death, causing the illness to become terminal and leaving behind no chance of survival.
Cancer is a traumatizing condition for both the victim and their family, leaving behind emotional and physical scars that can last a lifetime.
What is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a rare but highly aggressive form of cancer that attacks the human respiratory system. Indeed, one of the body’s most important functions and one without which no organ can survive is breathing. Even mundane tasks like walking, talking, or singing can become tedious if someone suffers from breathing issues.
Mesothelioma impacts the lungs affecting mesothelial cells within the pleura. Scientists are still trying to find a viable and effective treatment, but so far, no procedure or medication is known to cure this fatal disease completely.
The key to recovery is early diagnosis and swift treatment. Being educated, knowing which symptoms to look out for, which precautions to take. The timeline of treatment will help you manage this condition in a much better way, should it ever arise.
The cause behind mesothelioma is still quite unclear, but scientists believe it to be a combination of hereditary and environmental factors.
Several studies have also demonstrated a strong link between this illness and asbestos exposure, a naturally present mineral within our environment. This material is mainly utilized in construction and manufacturing, such as making brakes, insulating coverings, shingles, roofing, flooring, etc. This element possesses high tensile strength, heat, and electrical resistance, making it useful and lethal.
While the mineral may not be harmful in its raw state, it can transition to minuscule nondegradable toxic fibers if disintegrated. When inhaled or ingested, these particles accumulate within the linings of various organs, where they irritate, thereby triggering an inflammatory response. Prolonged exposure can eventually alter the genetic material of healthy cells, causing them to malfunction and multiply beyond control. This condition leads to the formation of a malignant mass, which we call mesothelioma.
Timeline of Spread:
Mesothelioma begins with the repeated inhalation of toxic asbestos particles. However, symptoms take a long time to appear as the latency period between asbestos exposure, while the disease development is over a decade. People who contract this illness are usually over 60 exposed to asbestos at their workplace as adults.
Like all other cancers, this condition develops in a series of 4 stages, each worse than the one before. With every passing stage, the malignancy spreads further and harms more organs in its path. Eventually, there comes the point when this damage can no longer be cured, as the systems of the body encounter permanent physiological alterations.
At the initial most stage, cancer starts to develop within the mesothelial cells of the parietal pleura (external layer), but it is limited to one side of the chest only. Organs beyond the lung’s outer lining are protected and haven’t been affected. Symptoms are barely visible as no significant harm has been caused yet.
Although the malignancy is still restricted to only one lung, cancer has progressed and has managed to affect the visceral pleura (internal layer). It is now slowly starting to make its way to the immediate surrounding organs and tissue. From here, It may either move towards the diaphragm, the peritoneum, or the mediastinum. Even at this stage, symptoms often go undetected, resembling the common cold.
Cancer has invaded both layers of the pleural membrane and is progressing to the surrounding lymph nodes. The malignancy, which was localized to one lung, now compromises the health of distant bodily organs. It has also damaged a small portion of the mediastinum. With increasing damage, the symptoms become more visible, patients experience a chronic dry cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath while doing everyday tasks.
The tumor at this stage becomes significantly widespread and has latched onto distant organs, nerves, and tissues. With the mediastinum damaged, cancer metastasizes towards the second lung and the pericardium. Even though the tumor is now fully developed, it has still not taken over the body’s lymphatic system.
The symptoms grow more aggressive as the second lung is compromised, and the malignancy has bridged the mediastinum. 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. Patients struggle with consistent fever, pain in the upper arm and shoulders, and night sweats.
Cancer has grown far beyond control at the end stage of mesothelioma and can no longer be contained. The mutations that started within one lung have spread to the entire respiratory system, distant organs, and even the lymphatic system. With limited options available for treatment, the patients’ chances of survival and life expectancy are now significantly lower.
Most mesothelioma cases are diagnosed beyond stage 2 because initial symptoms often go unnoticed. To reach a definitive diagnosis, professionals will likely conduct a series of blood tests, imaging tests, and biopsies. Based on the patient’s physical state and the stage at which the illness is detected, they will draft a treatment plan to slow the progression and increase life expectancy.
Timeline of Treatment:
Patient treatment largely depends on the stage at which their mesothelioma is detected and the severity of the spread. Barely any cases of this condition can be diagnosed at stage 1 due to the lack of visible symptoms. However, if a patient is lucky enough to be diagnosed at stage 1 or 2, their chances of recovery are high because minimal damage has been done at this point.
Doctors recommend surgery to resect the tumor from its origin, coupled with chemotherapy and immunotherapy, to eliminate cancerous cells from the root, leaving no chance of recurrence.
But if left undiagnosed, the condition progresses and latches on to critical organs and systems, treatment becomes complex, and surgery is no longer a viable option. Stage 3 or 4 of cancer, the tumor has already made its way to distant organs and damaged the deeper tissues of the lung. It has strengthened its grounds and integrated into the body by attaching itself to the surrounding nerves.
While doctors cannot offer a complete cure at this stage, they can provide treatment and palliative care to ease this stressful period. Palliative care includes procedures and medication that intend to delay the progression of cancerous cells, manage and reduce symptoms, increase life expectancy and help the patient live a life as normal as possible.
Some patients even qualify to be enrolled in clinical trials and ongoing research projects, where they get to test out new treatments, therapies, and therapeutic drugs. Standard palliative care procedures offered to help reduce pain and keep patients comfortable include thoracentesis, pleurodesis, radiation, paracentesis, and pericardiocentesis.
With the increase in pollutants, carcinogens, diesel exhaust, the air quality around us is rapidly degrading. Thus, these numbers aren’t expected to go down anytime soon. While cancer cannot be eliminated from existence, the chances of contracting this illness can be reduced.
Being aware, observing preventative measures, making lifestyle changes, and having regular healthcare assessments are all small but effective habits that’ll always keep you on top of your health.