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Mesothelioma is a devastating disease that can progress quickly. There is a long latency period associated with mesothelioma, meaning that symptoms can take as many as 10 to 50 years to appear. Latency periods vary between each case of mesothelioma and depend on a number of factors such as age and length of time an individual was exposed to asbestos.
Mesothelioma is virtually only caused by exposure to asbestos. You can be at risk of developing mesothelioma even without direct exposure. Simply working near asbestos, or living with someone who works near the mineral, can be enough to encounter dangerous levels of exposure.
The National Cancer Institute categorizes mesothelioma progression into four main stages. The earlier the disease is detected, the higher the possibility for effective treatment.
In stage 1 mesothelioma, the cancerous tumor(s) remain localized in the lining of the lungs, stomach or heart. The cancer has not yet spread to the lymph nodes or other organs.
The most treatable stage of mesothelioma, stage 1 has the best prognosis and longest survival rate. The most effective treatment plans for stage 1 mesothelioma have included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Surgery can remove the tumors, chemotherapy can kill remaining cells after surgery, and radiation therapy can be used before surgery to shrink the tumors or after surgery to reduce the risk of the tumor returning.
Stage 1 mesothelioma progresses to stage 2 mesothelioma when the tumor grows slightly larger and begins to invade other parts of the body.
Surgery to remove the tumor, combined with chemotherapy and radiation therapy, is still the most suitable treatment plan at this stage. If the tumor has spread to the lung tissue or diaphragm, doctors may perform an extrapleural pneumonectomy surgery, in which the affected lung and its lining are removed.
In stage 3 mesothelioma, the cancer has invaded an entire area of the body and is considered locally advanced. Mesothelioma can progress to this point in several ways. Either the main tumor grows large enough to put pressure on nearby organs and grow into them, or cancer cells can break off the tumor, attach to lymph vessels and travel through the body via the lymph nodes. If the cancer invades the lymph system, or enters the bloodstream, there is a good chance it may spread to distant organs, advancing to stage 4.
At this stage, treatment typically focuses on pain relief and extending life expectancy. While surgical removal of tumors is possible, it is only recommended for patients in good health. Other treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be considered optimal treatment methods.
A stage 4 mesothelioma diagnosis means the cancer has spread to multiple areas of the body.
Because the spread of the disease is so extensive at this stage, few treatment options may have a profound effect on the cancer. Surgically removing tumors is not usually possible at this stage because they have spread throughout so many different parts of the body. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can be used to slow cancer growth and alleviate symptoms.