After you or someone you love receives a mesothelioma diagnosis, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Your normal routine is turned on its head. Your life is suddenly filled with doctor visits and treatments. You don’t know if you’ll be able to do the things you planned for your future. You may feel angry, hopeless, stressed, or depressed.
But you can take charge of your life after a mesothelioma diagnosis. You can reach out for the help and support you need to get through treatment with a positive attitude. You don’t have to surrender to mesothelioma.
The first step in your fight against this deadly form of cancer is to understand your diagnosis. Informing yourself about mesothelioma will help you fight back.
Steps to Get a Mesothelioma Diagnosis
Mesothelioma is an uncommon type of cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma tumors form in the linings around your organs, most commonly the lungs or pleura and abdominal or peritoneal cavity. Because this cancer is so rare, it can be a challenge to get a mesothelioma diagnosis. Most doctors simply don’t see enough cases of mesothelioma to know to look for it. If you know or suspect you were exposed to asbestos, make sure to tell your doctor. If your doctor begins by looking for this rare cancer, you may be able to get a mesothelioma diagnosis more quickly.
There are several common illnesses with symptoms similar to mesothelioma. Before taking the steps needed to reach a mesothelioma diagnosis, your doctor may need to rule out conditions such as these:
- Lung cancer
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Congestive heart failure
Part of your mesothelioma diagnosis is often an X-ray or CT scan. However, these tests are just a first step. Even if a scan detects a mass that appears cancerous, your doctor will usually want to test fluid or test tissue that has been removed from the body.
The least invasive form of biopsy is a fine-needle aspiration. A needle can be used to withdraw fluid or tissue for analysis. The fluid is referred to as cytology and cells in the fluid can be tested. Patients with mesothelioma often have a buildup of fluid in the lining around the lungs or other organs. After fluid is drawn by a needle, a pathologist examines the fluid under a microscope looking for mesothelioma cancer cells. If this fluid doesn’t contain enough cancerous cells to give a firm mesothelioma diagnosis, your doctor may want to follow up with an endoscopic or surgical biopsy.
Endoscopic biopsies require only a small incision. A tube is inserted to take a tissue sample from the site of your tumor. This tissue sample is examined under a microscope by a pathologist to determine whether you have mesothelioma. The pathologist may also determine what type of mesothelioma cancer cells are present in your tumor. Mesothelioma cell type can help determine the type of treatment your doctor prescribes for you.
If your doctor can’t perform the biopsy endoscopically, and depending on the circumstances, you may need a surgical biopsy. Surgical biopsies can range from an outpatient operation with a small incision to a full surgical procedure. If your tumor is pressing on your lungs, your doctor may decide to remove the entire tumor during the biopsy procedure.
Cancer Staging With Your Mesothelioma Diagnosis
When you get a confirmed mesothelioma diagnosis, your doctor may evaluate the stage of your cancer. The stage represents how far your mesothelioma has progressed before it was discovered and you started treatment.
You have probably heard of cancers being referred to using Stages 1 through 4, such as “Stage 4 breast cancer” or “Stage 2 lung cancer.” When you get a mesothelioma diagnosis, your doctor might use these stages, beginning with Stage 1, or a slightly different staging terminology. Mesothelioma cancers are often staged with the Tumor Node Metastasis or TNM system.
The TNM system breaks down your mesothelioma diagnosis into three categories, then uses numbers to indicate the tumor’s progression in that category. If you get a mesothelioma diagnosis in the T stage that means the cancer has not spread beyond the original tumor and the area immediately surrounding it. There are six T stages from TX (tumor can’t be found) and T0 (tumor is too small to locate) to T4 (tumor has spread to other parts of the chest immediately around the original tumor).
In the N mesothelioma stage, mesothelioma has spread to the lymph nodes. This stage has four sub-stages starting from NX and N0 (no spread detected) up to N3 (mesothelioma has spread to lymph nodes on the opposite side of your body).
The M stage has only two sub-stages. In M0, the mesothelioma tumor has spread, but only to the region near the original tumor. In the M1 stage, cancer has metastasized to the opposite side of your body from the original tumor.
When you get your mesothelioma diagnosis, ask your doctor to explain your mesothelioma stage. In addition, make sure your doctor explains the recommended treatments based on the stage of your cancer. While there are more treatments options available at the early stages, an N or M stage mesothelioma diagnosis can still come with good treatment options to slow the progression of your disease.
Mesothelioma Cell Types
Part of your mesothelioma diagnosis may be the cell type of your tumor. Mesothelioma tumors are classified into three different cell types: epitheliod, sarcomatoid, and biphasic (or mixed). Tumors with different cell types have different growth patterns.
The epitheliod cell type is the most common. Epitheliod mesothelioma cells grow faster than the other two types, but they are sticky, so they tend to stay in one place. A mesothelioma tumor with this cell type may be easier to treat and to contain.
The sarcomatoid cell type is rarer. This cell type doesn’t grow into an organized tumor, so it’s more likely to break free and metastasize. Metastatic cancer is often much more life threatening than the original tumor.
A mesothelioma tumor with the biphasic cell type has both epitheliod and sarcomatoid cells. If this is your mesothelioma diagnosis, your doctor may want to do additional tests to determine the percentage of each type of cell in your tumor. That will help predict the progression of your cancer, as well as the most effective treatments.
Living Well With Mesothelioma
A mesothelioma diagnosis can leave you feeling anxious and stressed. As important as it is to take care of your physical health at this time, it’s also important to take care of your mental and emotional health.
Financial worries can be a significant source of stress after a mesothelioma diagnosis. You or a spouse may have had to leave a job because of your illness. You can get help with your medical bills and financial security for your family’s future from an experienced asbestos attorney. As with most forms of cancer, it is helpful to maintain a positive frame of mind.