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Types of Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma, a rare and deadly cancer that is caused by asbestos exposure, is known to attack the lining of the lungs, heart and abdomen. Each year, up to 3,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with it.

In all mesothelioma cases, the cancer attacks the mesothelium, or the thin layer of tissue that lines and protects the organs. For most patients, the disease lingers for decades before it is detected. By that time, many patients are in the advanced stages of the disease. The three different types of mesothelioma – pleural, peritoneal and pericardial – are classified according to the area of the body damaged by cancer.

Pleural Mesothelioma

As the most common type of mesothelioma, pleural mesothelioma makes up about 75 percent of all cases. In this disease, the pleura, or the membrane around the lungs and in the chest cavity, is damaged. The disease forms when patients breathe in the fine and light asbestos fibers. They become trapped in the lungs and the mesothelium and remain there for decades. Over time, the fibers irritate the tissue, cause cell changes and tumors. Pleural mesothelioma is tricky to diagnose because it can easily be mistaken for other, more benign diseases. While each patient has unique symptoms, overall the most common symptoms include:

  • Persistent cough
  • Weight loss
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Difficulty swallowing

Pleural mesothelioma is diagnosed through X-rays and CT scans. If the scans indicate problems, doctors will often require lung biopsies to make a positive diagnosis. It’s important to get diagnosed as quickly as possible becausepleural mesothelioma is difficult to treat. There are only a few experts in the nation who are known for their skill in treating this disease process. The Mesothelioma Support Network can connect you with an expert in the field through our exclusive Doctor Match Program.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma

This type of mesothelioma is known to attack the lining of the abdomen, also called the peritoneum. Up to 30 percent of all mesothelioma cases begin in the peritoneal area, which houses the liver, intestines and other abdominal organs. Peritoneal mesothelioma is thought to develop in one of two ways:

  • Asbestos fibers are ingested and work their way through the intestinal tract. Once inside the intestines, they get to the peritoneal cavity and the peritoneum.
  • Asbestos fibers are inhaled and transported by the lymph nodes to the peritoneum.

The symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma differ from other types of mesothelioma. In addition to fever and unexplained weight loss, there are several more severe symptoms:

  • Ascites: Also known as the abnormal collection of fluid in the abdomen, this can cause nausea, weight gain, and bodily swelling.
  • Bowel obstructions: Often in late-stage peritoneal mesothelioma, patients suffer from blockages in their small or large intestines.
  • Anemia – This reduction of red blood cells forces the heart and other organs to work harder.
  • Peritoneal mesothelioma is diagnosed through imaging testing and biopsies. It is further classified according to the types and shapes of tumors: dry, wet and mixed.

Like pleural mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma is difficult to treat, especially when caught in the later stages. Our exclusive Doctor Match Program can expedite physician visits, diagnostic testing and treatment.

Pericardial Mesothelioma

Of the three types of mesothelioma, pericardial mesothelioma is the least common and accounts for about 10 percent of all mesothelioma cases. This type of mesothelioma attacks the lining that surrounds and supports the heart. While it’s unclear exactly how asbestos reaches the pericardium, one theory is that when the fibers are inhaled, they enter the bloodstream and circulate to the heart area. Because pericardial mesothelioma is so rare, it has not been fully studied.

The symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma are similar to the other two mesothelioma diseases, with a few exceptions:

  • Heart tremors and heart murmurs
  • Breathlessness
  • Chest soreness
  • Night sweats

Doctors diagnose pericardial mesothelioma similar to other mesothelioma types, including imaging tests, physical exams and biopsies. There are only limited treatments for this rare mesothelioma because the pericardium rests so close to the heart. If this cancer is diagnosed early, surgical removal of the damaged pericardium may be possible, called a pericardiectomy. Our Doctor Match Program and patient advocates can help patients diagnosed with pericardial mesothelioma.

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