BY Kristie L. Kahl
Mesothelioma – which accounts for approximately 3,000 news cases per year in the US – occurs in both men and women and can vary by age as well as profession. However, symptoms from the disease can take 10 to 50 years to develop – affecting both age at diagnosis and overall prognosis.
To better understand the disease, CURE
spoke with Dr. Katy Moncivais, who holds her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, about the symptoms and risk factors associated with mesothelioma.
CURE: To start, what are the differences between the three types of mesothelioma?
Pleural mesothelioma affects the lining of the lungs (the pleura) and is the most common form; peritoneal mesothelioma affects the tissue surrounding the abdominal cavity; and pericardial mesothelioma affects the tissue surrounding the heart.
What are some symptoms patients should be aware of with mesothelioma?
This is a tough question, because mesothelioma symptoms differ significantly from patient to patient. In the earlier stages, patients often experience things like persistent coughing, fever, fatigue, weight loss, hyperhidrosis, and shortness of breath. These symptoms are also associated with lung cancer, pneumonia and other lung conditions - so they do not indicate mesothelioma in and of themselves.
With pleural mesothelioma, the most common form, patients often have chest or lower back pain, difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, and facial swelling.
Pericardial (abdominal) mesothelioma frequently presents with chest pain, heart rhythm abnormalities and shortness of breath. And finally, peritoneal mesothelioma can cause stomach pain and swelling, nausea, vomiting and constipation.
What are the causes, or potential risk factors, associated with the disease?
Asbestos exposure is by far the most serious risk factor for all forms of mesothelioma and has been implicated in the vast majority of pleural mesothelioma cases. Zeolites, which are materials similar to asbestos, have also been associated with mesothelioma development. Coming in on the lower end of risk factors are radiation, SV40 virus exposure, increasing age, male gender and genetic mutations of the BAP1 gene, all of which have been associated with mesothelioma with a dramatically smaller body of evidence than asbestos exposure.
Why does it take so long for symptoms to develop after asbestos exposure?
That is one of the most important questions in the field of mesothelioma research. Unfortunately, at this moment, we just don’t have the answer.
My personal favorite theory involves inflammatory and tumorigenic (encouraging tumor growth) signaling pathways activated by asbestos fibers. We’ve known for at least 10 years now that asbestos triggers the release of proteins and other molecules that lead to cell death, chronic inflammation and genetic damage. Though we don’t know the specific route of genetic damage that consistently leads to development of mesothelioma, there’s plenty of research indicating the pathological effects of chronic inflammation, many of which can lead to cancer.
My suspicion is that the exposure to asbestos very dependably causes certain cellular malfunctions that are equivalent to the toppling over of a single domino that barely topples over another domino, etc. Depending on the person and their unique genetic profile and physiology, these cellular malfunctions compound over time, eventually leading to the development of mesothelioma, many years after the initial exposure to asbestos.
If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms, it's important to maintain a healthy routine of seeing a doctor and receiving annual check ups.