November - Lung Cancer Awareness Month

December 3, 2018

As we begin December, we want to pass along some important lung cancer information as November was Lung Cancer Awareness Month.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of death among cancer patients in both men and women, translating to roughly 155,000 deaths every year. Each year, a staggering 234,030 new lung cancer cases will be diagnosed. Among the several specific types of lung cancer, rarer cases like mesothelioma often are lesser advocated for in comparison to other more common types of cancers.

For example, mesothelioma which impacts 3,000 patients and their families each year is the leading source of occupational cancer, affecting a diverse background of people. While some cancers can be linked to genetics, mesothelioma differs in a huge way. This type of cancer can only be contracted by exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed and typically won’t show symptoms for a minimum of 15 years.

Asbestos is a set of six microscopic fibrous minerals that were introduced and made popular in manufacturing during the early-mid twentieth century. Asbestos gained popularity in a variety of applications, historically most seen in all forms of construction projects. The resilient properties of asbestos allow the mineral the ability to withstand heat and chemical reactions like electricity. Over time it became apparent that asbestos use was directly linked to life-threatening health complications, the use of asbestos in common applications drastically dropped, although this toxin has never been officially outlawed in the United States. Through ingestion or inhalation of asbestos, the tiny shards have the ability to attack the lining of the lungs, stomach, and heart cavity.

Mesothelioma of the Lungs

Pleural mesothelioma is the most common type of this cancer, accounting for nearly 90 percent of all diagnoses. This particular form of cancer occurs when asbestos fibers attach to the lining of the lungs from accidental inhalation of asbestos dust which then creates scarring and swelling of the lungs. As both issues slowly worsen over time, tumors can form, and patients will be more prone to notice respiratory-related symptoms. Common symptoms include chest pain, dry cough, shortness of breath, and the buildup of fluid in the lungs (pleural effusion). It is important to note; these symptoms are often mistaken for more common respiratory implications. Mesothelioma has a prolonged latency period, therefore asbestos-related diseases are rarely the initial suspect.

The lesser seen symptoms include weight loss, fatigue, night sweats, and fevers. These symptoms could be an indication of a wide range of issues such as further prolonging proper diagnosis and treatments. Mesothelioma is typically diagnosed late into the illness, the average life expectancy for a patient is anywhere from 6 to 12 months. Certain factors need to be considered when dealing with mesothelioma of the lungs. For example, if a patient is diagnosed with an epithelioid cell type, their cells will group together and metastasize at a slower rate, resulting in the patient being more responsive to treatment.

Accurate Diagnosis

An official diagnosis of pleural mesothelioma can be a rather lengthy process. To identify any potential tumors, a number of imaging scans such as X-rays, PET scans, and MRI will be used. If a tumor is then detected the patient will receive a biomarker test, which has the ability to pinpoint mesothelioma cancer cells, and discern the disease from conditions with related symptoms. Next, a biopsy will have to be performed to take a sample of tissue or fluid for analysis. For a thoracoscopy to be done properly, a doctor will use a fine needle to remove the build-up of fluid in the body’s chest cavity. After, a pathologist will study the cells to make a definitive diagnosis.

Although the diagnosis process may seem long-winded, the increased number of cases over the past century is increasing accuracy and the speed of diagnosis. This paired with an appropriate treatment plan is saving the lives of many burdened by mesothelioma.

Treatment process

Although treatment plans differ based on the cancer-cell size and stage, treatment for pleural mesothelioma needs to be immediate and aggressive to prolong a patient's life. Doctors have seen success using a multimodal approach: combining chemotherapy and surgery. This removes any part of the lung or the lining of the chest to prevent further cell growth and is followed up with an additional session of targeted chemotherapy. A combination of two drugs, Altima and Clistplan are most commonly recommended to patients.

Unfortunately, when the cancer is discovered in stages three and four, there's minimal curative options. This has prompted doctors to incorporate a palliative treatment plan into their routine to help manage pain and emphasize improving the quality of life. Malignant mesothelioma grows and spreads at a rapid rate, leaving patients with increasingly harsher symptoms and chronic pain.