Doctors who deal with a rare illness like mesothelioma know that the vast majority of people, even highly-trained physicians, don’t know much about the disease. A good doctor will therefore be gracious in helping to explain the terms and concepts you need to know to understand this condition.
But whether you are doing research, seeking the right physician, gathering questions to ask your current doctor, looking for a mesothelioma lawyer, or collecting information to help a loved one, it is always valuable to educate yourself on the vocabulary you need to learn and communicate about this uncommon cancer.
Let’s take a look at some of the terms you need to know to understand mesothelioma. We’ll start with the way mesothelioma develops in the body and its four types, then turn to look at phrases used when discussing a diagnosis, healthcare providers a patient may encounter, methods of treatment, and legal terminology related to mesothelioma cases.
Development of Mesothelioma
Let’s first explore some terminology related to the formation of this cancer.
- Mesothelium. The mesothelium is a membrane lining the lungs, abdomen, heart, and testicles. Each organ’s mesothelium has a different name, and it is in these linings that mesothelioma develops.
- Pleura. The mesothelium of the lungs.
- Peritoneum. The mesothelium of the abdomen.
- Pericardium. The mesothelium of the heart.
- Tunica Vaginalis. The mesothelium of the testes.
- Mesothelial Cells. The specialized cells making up the mesothelium lining organs are called mesothelial cells.
- Asbestos. The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos. It is a naturally-occurring mineral which was once used frequently in construction and industry due to its durable and fire-resistant properties. Exposure to asbestos can lead to the growth of tumors in the mesothelium.
- Benign Tumors. Non-cancerous tumors are benign. Benign tumors can grow in the mesothelium but not spread. These tumors are not usually life-threatening.
- Malignant Tumors. This type of tumor is cancerous, can spread, and is often life-threatening. Patients with malignant tumors found in the mesothelium will be diagnosed with one of the four types of malignant mesothelioma.
Types of Mesothelioma
There are four types of mesothelioma based on the four types of mesothelium.
- Pleural Mesothelioma. The most common form of mesothelioma (80-90% of cases) is when cancer forms in the pleura of the lungs.
- Peritoneal Mesothelioma. This cancer develops in the peritoneum, the mesothelium lining the abdominal cavity. These cases make up to 20% of those diagnosed.
- Pericardial Mesothelioma. Pericardial mesothelioma affects the lining of the heart, or pericardium, and is seen in only about 1% of diagnosed patients.
- Testicular Mesothelioma. Testicular mesothelioma develops in the tunica vaginalis lining the testicles. It is only found in less than 1% of diagnosed cases.
Tumors forming in the mesothelium are made up of different types of cells. There are three types based on mesothelioma cancer cells.
- Epithelioid. Epithelioid is the most common cell type (about 60% of cases), and epithelioid mesothelioma is usually the easiest to treat.
- Sarcomatoid. The rarest cell type is sarcomatoid. It is also difficult to treat and likely to spread rapidly.
- Biphasic. Tumors which contain both epithelioid and sarcomatoid cells are called biphasic. Only about 15% of mesothelioma diagnoses are biphasic.
Receiving a Mesothelioma Diagnosis
The terms below will help you better understand a mesothelioma diagnosis.
- Mesothelioma Stages. The stages of mesothelioma are broken into four parts: Stage 1 through Stage 4. Pleural mesothelioma is the only type with official staging, but unofficial staging may be used to describe the progressions of other types. The stages depict the evolution of the disease from localized to metastasized (spread throughout the body).
- Metastasis. Metastasis is when cancer spreads out (metastasizes) from its original location. This is the natural course of the disease, and mesothelioma can, like other cancers, spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood.
- Life Expectancy. Life expectancy is the amount of time a person can expect to live after receiving a diagnosis.
- Survival Rate. This is the amount of time the average patient lives after being diagnosed. These rates are estimates based on previous case outcomes, and are not specific to one particular person’s case.
- Latency Period. This is the number of years between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma diagnosis. The average latency period is 20-50 years, but can be as high as 70 years.
- Prognosis. A prognosis is a prediction of the development and course of the disease and chance of recovery. A good prognosis is an expectation of recovery, while a poor prognosis anticipates conditions will worsen.
Mesothelioma Healthcare Professionals
As a patient undergoes diagnosis, treatment, and care, they will meet several different types of healthcare providers. You and your family should be familiar with the following medical specialty positions you may encounter:
- Mesothelioma Specialist. These are physicians who have experience working with this rare disease. A mesothelioma specialist will usually be one of the types of physicians listed below.
- Medical Oncologist. Any oncologist is a doctor who specializes in cancer treatment. A medical oncologist is normally the cancer patient’s primary healthcare provider and will administer medical treatments like chemotherapy and immunotherapy.
- Radiation Oncologist. These are doctors who treat cancer with radiation therapy.
- Surgical Oncologist. A surgical oncologist specializes in performing surgery to remove cancerous tumors.
- Thoracic Surgeon. This type of surgeon has expertise in surgery involving the organs of the chest, including the heart and lungs.
- Cardiothoracic Surgeon. This position is similar to a thoracic surgeon, but tends to focus more on surgery involving the heart.
- Pulmonologist. A pulmonologist is a doctor specializing in the respiratory system, including the lungs and airways.
- Pathologist. A pathologist helps make a diagnosis by performing lab tests and analyzing cells and tissue to determine the disease. These test may include:
- Blood tests
- Tissue samples
- Fluid samples
- Tumor biopsies (using a needle, camera, or surgery)
- Radiologist. These doctors diagnose diseases through the use of medical imaging technologies. To test for mesothelioma, a radiologist may use one or more of the following methods:
- Computed tomography (CT) scan
- Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
- Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS)
Based on NIH National Cancer Institute research, the treatment options a physician recommends should be dependent upon a number of factors unique to the patient. These include the stage of the cancer, the size and location of tumors, the amount of fluid buildup, and the health, age, gender, and activity level of the patient, among other factors. Just because a treatment option exists does not mean it will be right for all patients. The following overview provides terminology your doctor may use when discussing mesothelioma treatment options.
- Curative Care. Curative care is focused on treatments that allow a patient to recover or significantly extend their life.
- Palliative Care. Palliative care is care focused on comfort rather than cure. When mesothelioma is diagnosed in the later stages and treatment may not be an option, palliative care provides relief and improves quality of life.
- Adjuvant Therapy. Adjuvant therapy is a secondary or side therapy designed to assist the efficacy of the primary therapy. For example, chemotherapy may be used as an adjuvant therapy to prevent the cancer removed in surgery from returning.
- Neoadjuvant Therapy. This is therapy administered before the primary therapy in an effort to enhance the success of the treatment. For example, radiation may be used to shrink a tumor before it is removed through surgery.
For mesothelioma patients, there are five standard types of therapies most often used in treatment:
- Surgery. This can include wide local excision (surgery to remove the cancer and surrounding tissue), pleurectomy (removal of part of the pleura), extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP) to remove the lung and surrounding areas, and pleurodesis (procedure to stop fluid buildup).
- Chemotherapy. Cancer-killing chemicals may be injected, administered by mouth, or placed directly into an organ. A procedure called heated intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) can be used to treat peritoneum mesothelioma.
- Radiation Therapy. This therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells and stop growth.
- Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy uses the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer cells.
- Targeted Therapy. This is a type of treatment using drugs or other substances to identify and attack cancer cells with reduced harm to normal cells.
Legal Terminology Related to Mesothelioma Cases
For those pursuing legal action in a mesothelioma case, these terms are essential to know:
- Occupational Exposure. This means that a person was exposed to asbestos through their position of employment. When this is the case, a person is often eligible to receive compensation for the harm they sustained through the negligence of an employer.
- Compensation. Compensation is money awarded to someone to make up for the damages and losses they suffered.
- Negligence. In order to receive compensation, negligence must first be shown. Negligence means that a company or individual failed in their duty to uphold a certain standard of care needed to keep others safe.
- Statute of Limitations. This is the length of time an individual has to take legal action after a mesothelioma diagnosis. Laws vary by state and conditions.
- Asbestos Trust Funds. Some companies admitted liability and filed for bankruptcy due to employee exposure to asbestos. Asbestos trust funds are used to compensate patients and families when mesothelioma claims are filed.
- Veteran’s Benefits. Because of the high numbers of veterans who were exposed to asbestos during their time of service, many individuals are eligible to obtain disability payments or receive treatment at a VA hospital.
It is best to discuss medical questions with your doctor and legal questions with your lawyer. Reach out to our office to schedule a free conversation with one of our attorneys. We devote our efforts solely to helping victims of asbestos exposure achieve justice under the law.