Mesothlioma is a type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, and about 20 to 30 percent of all cases of mesothelioma are peritoneal mesothelioma, which forms in the abdomen in a layer of membranes called the peritoneum. It is possible that peritoneal mesothelioma can move into the lungs and form a type of secondary lung cancer.
When asbestos is breathed in or ingested, its fibers can lodge in the body’s internal tissues, which then become inflamed and irritated over time. This eventually leads to the development of a tumor, which encases the membranes that cover the organs and line the cavities of the body. This tumor is diffuse, unlike the tumors associated with lung or breast cancer, which makes it difficult to remove or treat.
During the course of the 20th Century, asbestos was used for thousands of different purposes, and anyone who worked with or around it would have been vulnerable to its carcinogenic effects. Locations where asbestos was most commonly used include steel mills, shipyards, refineries, power plants, factories and more. Since it was so widely used, even in personal homes, schools and office buildings, mesothelioma is not restricted to industrial workers, although they are more at risk than the general population.
First responders who worked at Ground Zero immediately following the September 11, 2001 attacks may also be at a higher risk for developing peritoneal mesothelioma, among other forms of mesothelioma, since hundreds of tons of asbestos insulation were used in the construction of the World Trade Center. Volunteers, especially those who helped with demolition and rebuilding, in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina may face a similar risk.
Complicating this disease even further is the latency period of this cancer. It can take between 20 to 50 years after the asbestos exposure took place for the symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma to become evident. These symptoms occur as tumors begin to form when division of cancer cells becomes more prevalent, and pressure begins to build up on internal organs. Such symptoms may include unusual lumps on the abdomen; swelling or distention of the abdomen despite rapid or unexplained weight loss; night sweats; coughing; fatigue and anemia; changes in bowel function; and abdominal pain.
Because these symptoms are so broad, the patient, his or her relatives, and the patient’s physician may all usually think the symptoms are related to something other than peritoneal mesothelioma. The patient may not seek medical attention until these symptoms have been ongoing for quite some time, and even then they may be misdiagnosed. One of the major factors in the correct and timely diagnosis of peritoneal mesothelioma is a proper medical history, which will alert the physician to a previous history of exposure to asbestos.
Inguinal and umbilical hernias may occur in men as a first indication of peritoneal mesothelioma. For women, the presence of a tumor mass in the pelvis is a beginning sign of this type of cancer. Symptoms that occur later during the progression of peritoneal mesothelioma include increased likelihood of blood clots and obstructions of the bowel. Around 50 percent of patients experiencing late stage symptoms of this cancer will have elevated blood platelet levels, but unfortunately this, too, is a common symptom that is also seen in many other medical conditions. Other late stage symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include anemia and levels of albumin that are low.
After looking at the patient’s symptoms and medical history, the doctor may then focus on other tests that might include X-rays, MRIs or CT scans, which are imaging processes that can detect irregularities, such as masses or abnormal tissue, within the body. A biopsy may also be ordered; a biopsy is a simple procedure that involves surgically removing tissue or fluid that is in the peritoneum, and then testing it using various methods, to determine if the cells are cancerous and if indeed that cancer really is mesothelioma. If a biopsy does detect peritoneal mesothelioma, the doctor and the patient will sit down together to develop a treatment plan.
A patient’s prognosis after the diagnosis of peritoneal mesothelioma will be determined by the location, size and stage of the cancer, the patient’s age and general health, and the wishes of the patient and his or her family.
The goals for a doctor treating peritoneal mesothelioma are to fight the patient’s cancer, while at the same time working to relieve the patient’s pain. Treatment options include radiation, chemotherapy, and surgical procedures. Medications and radiation treatment can focus on and destroy quickly dividing cancerous cells that cause the spread of peritoneal mesothelioma.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for peritoneal mesothelioma, so patients may need to explore several different treatment plans, or perhaps elect to take part in clinical trials. During such clinical trials, patients may explore how the most scientifically cutting edge treatments and medications may affect their peritoneal mesothelioma. These clinical trials are necessary for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve any new treatment options.
One specific treatment option for peritoneal mesothelioma is called intraperitoneal chemotherapy. This treatment involves the injection of medications into the peritoneal cavity right after surgery has been completed. Sometimes therapy with radiation occurs before the surgery takes place—the goal of this is to reduce tumor size before attempting surgery.
In a good deal of peritoneal mesothelioma cases, the patient is often not healthy enough, or the cancer has too rapidly progressed, for surgery to be a viable treatment option. In these cases, the patient may elect to use palliative methods that do not stop the cancer outright, but still aim to provide relief from the symptoms, to lessen the pain the patient is experiencing, and to improve their overall quality of life.
Roughly 10 percent of those diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma will still be living three years after diagnosis, and only five percent can survive for up to five years after diagnosis. If the peritoneal mesothelioma is caught just after it has begun, and treatment begins promptly, about 50 percent of individuals can live for two years after diagnosis, and 20 percent of patients can live for five years after diagnosis. These statistics highlight the fact that early detection is crucial. Early detection is more likely when people who may have been exposed to toxic levels of asbestos materials in their past have regular yearly physicals.