Straight Talk about Mesothelioma, a blog series created by Michael T. Milano, M.D., Ph.D., a radiation oncology specialist, as a resource for mesothelioma patients and their loved ones.

Q: How did I develop mesothelioma?

A: Asbestos is a reality of modern living. It exists at low levels in our air, water, and soil. While there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, those who typically become ill from it are most likely exposed to the mineral in greater quantities, and more often, through regular contact at a job working directly with the material. Shipbuilders, roofers, miners, manufacturers of asbestos-containing textiles, demolition workers, automobile mechanics, and firefighters are just a few of the professions with greater risk of asbestos exposure, especially for those who worked in those industries prior to the government safety regulations that were put in place in the late 1970s.

Q: What are common symptoms of mesothelioma?

A: Individuals who have been exposed (or suspect they have been exposed) to asbestos fibers on the job, through the environment, or at home via second-hand contact with a family member who may have been exposed should inform their doctor about their concerns, regardless of whether or not they are experiencing any symptoms. The symptoms of asbestos-related diseases may not become apparent for many decades after the initial exposure. That said, the symptoms of asbestos-related diseases include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • A persistent cough that gets worse over time
  • Chest pain
  • Wheezing
  • Hoarseness
  • Pain in lower back
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Fatigue
  • Chills and fever
  • Decreased appetite and weight loss

Q: What are the major health issues associated with exposure to asbestos?

A: Lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis are the three main health issues associated with exposure to asbestos. Lung cancer and mesothelioma are types of cancer. Mesothelioma can be found in the thin lining of the lung (the mesothelium), as well as in the chest, abdomen, and heart. Asbestosis, while not a cancer, is still a serious disease of the lungs that is progressive and long-term.

Q: Should everyone get a second opinion for malignant mesothelioma?

A: There are many reasons to seek a second opinion if you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, and many patients choose to do so. In fact, some insurance companies encourage patients to get a second opinion before commencing treatment. It is important to get the opinion of a specialist who is experienced in your particular type of cancer.

Q: What can I expect from chemotherapy?

A: For patients with mesothelioma, chemotherapy is likely to be a critical part of their treatment. A medical oncologist — a doctor who specializes in using drugs to treat cancer — will likely use combination chemotherapy, employing more than one drug to combat the cancer. The chemotherapy may occur prior to surgery to shrink the tumor, or after surgery or radiation therapy to kill any cancer cells remaining behind in the body.

Chemotherapy can be administered at a doctor’s office, in a hospital, or even at home, depending upon a patient’s health and the type of drugs being used. The drug or drugs are given via a pill or put directly into your veins through an intravenous (IV) line. The chemotherapy is given in a series of cycles that occur over several weeks. One treatment followed by a rest period equals one cycle.

Next article in this series: “What Can I Expect from My Pleural Mesothelioma Treatment?”