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.
Several different symptoms may be associated with mesothelioma, yet the problem with detecting this deadly disease early is that many of these symptoms can also be caused by other health problems.
As a result, individuals may not realize they should be evaluated for mesothelioma, and wait for several weeks or months before they are eventually diagnosed. This potentially dangerous delay is why it is important to know about the symptoms associated with mesothelioma. If individuals know they have been exposed to asbestos, early screening and detection of mesothelioma is key to a better prognosis. Yet while mesothelioma symptoms can be difficult to treat, there are a number of options available.
Mesothelioma Pain and Symptoms
While mesothelioma can arise in different parts of the body, three quarters of mesothelioma occurs in the chest, and the symptoms are often centralized there. Pleural mesothelioma, which grows around the lungs, can leave individuals feeling exhausted and out of breath. Often, they experience pain when coughing, and have an ache around their rib cage or lower back. Individuals may also have pain in other areas of the chest, since tumor growth may press against different organs. Some may have problems swallowing, or sound hoarse when talking.
Peritoneal mesothelioma, which involves tumor growth in the abdomen, can lead to swelling and abdominal pain. Individuals may also experience constipation, nausea and/or vomiting. Some individuals with mesothelioma do not have any pain before they are diagnosed, another factor that makes this disease difficult to treat early.
Mesothelioma pain itself can be challenging to treat, since an individual may experience bone or nerve pain. While standard pain relievers can provide some relief, doctors and patients must carefully consider the best treatment options, because the pain often has several different sources.
Pain Relief Options
Mesothelioma patients who experience pain should rely on their doctors for help, and may benefit from a specialist in pain relief (i.e. specialist in palliative care or pain management). Not only will the doctor be able to change an individual’s medications as their symptoms change, they can monitor the dosage and side effects from the pain medications. For example, opioids may cause constipation, nausea, jerky movements, hallucinations, or impaired thinking.
Cancer therapy, including palliative chemotherapy may make the tumors smaller and thereby less painful. Radiation therapy is also used as a palliative measure and may lessen chest pain, and reduce painful coughing. Radiation therapy is particularly beneficial in patients with pain from invasion of the cancer into bone.
Nerve pain related to mesothelioma may be alleviated with specific antidepressants and anticonvulsants, which can reduce burning sensations and shooting pains. Some patients may also find relief using topical pain patches that deliver medication over a period of hours.
For mesothelioma patients with pain that is particularly difficult to treat, doctors may give epidural anesthetics and pain relievers by injecting the medicine into the spine; pain medication can also be injected into nerve and spinal nerve roots. An extreme treatment would be a cordotomy, in which a surgeon cuts the spinal cord nerve roots so that it cannot send nerve pain to the affected area.