Sunday, May 6, 2007


Palliative care is a specialized form of care that alleviates pain and other symptoms. The goal of palliative medicine is not to prolong life or hasten death, but rather, to keep the patient as comfortable as possible, while offering support to the patient and their family. Palliative care contributes to the quality of life for patients with life-threatening illnesses at any phase of the disease.

For the patients who are undergoing life-prolonging therapies, palliative care includes symptom management and therapy aimed at restoring function. For the dying patient, it addresses the traditional roles of the hospice movement. During the course of a serious illness, patients and their families should realize that the goals of care can, and do, change, sometimes rapidly. An open line of communication is essential to optimize patient care.

Symptoms Managed through Palliative Care

Some of the common symptoms managed through palliative care include:

  • Pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Dry Mouth
  • Loss of appetite
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Skin problems
  • Anxiety/Depression


Pain management is one of the most important aspects of palliative care. Because it is now considered a medical specialty, you may wish to consult a physician well versed in pain management if your physician seems unable or unwilling to provide adequate pain control.

Many people with cancer experience pain. Statistics show that 30 to 40 per cent of patients in active cancer therapy, and 70 to 90 percent of patients with advanced cancer report pain. In most cases, pain can be controlled through medications prescribed according to the World Health Organization's Analgesic Ladder, an approach using various levels of medication based on the severity of pain. This type of pain treatment, using drugs, is called pharmacological therapy. Medications may include non-opioid pain relievers, opioid pain relievers, adjuvant medications (those whose primary purpose is not for pain, but for other conditions), and topical treatments such as a patch, gel, or cream.

Non-pharmacological therapies, those that do not rely primarily on medication to achieve effect, include therapeutic exercise and cognitive behavioral techniques such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation, imagery, meditation, biofeedback therapy, and distraction. Complementary and/or alternative approaches include acupuncture and massage therapy. Integretive medicine refers to the combination of mainstream conventional treatment such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation with complementary therapies proven to have sound scientific evidence as to their safety and effectiveness.

Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, affects 20 to 80 percent of palliative care patients. Causes of this condition may include, lung disease, fluid in the lungs, infection, anemia, or emotional factors such as anxiety. While medications or oxygen may be used to treat shortness of breath, sometimes measures such as changing position, using relaxation techniques, or improving air circulation may help. More on anemia from chemotherapy treatment.


Cancer-related fatigue may be the result of the general progression of the disease, the effects of medication, or the after effects of treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. The following symptoms are usually associated with fatigue:

  • Diminished energy level disproportionate to activity
  • Diminished activity associated with physical or intellectual performance
  • Diminished motivation; lack of interest in activities
  • Exhaustion, apathy, or lethargy
  • Generalized tiredness
  • Sleep abnormalities
  • Irritability, impatience, or changes in mood

The treatment of fatigue is based on first identifying, and then managing, the underlying cause of the fatigue. Once that is accomplished, interventions such as medication, exercise, stress management, and nutrition are used. More on fatigue in mesothelioma patients.

Dry Mouth

Dry mouth, or xerostoma, is another symptom addressed in palliative care. Causes may be dehydration, depression or anxiety, or may be a side effect of medications such as pain relievers, antidepressants, diuretics, or tranquilizers. Chemotherapy treatments or radiotherapy may also be a cause.

Relief of dry mouth can often be achieved by:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids
  • Sucking on ice chips or Vitamin C tablets
  • Chewing sugarless gum
  • Maintaining good oral hygiene
  • Providing humidified air

Loss of Appetite

Patients with life-threatening illnesses often lose their appetite, and subsequently, lose weight. If the condition becomes too severe, it is called cachexia. Doctors uniformly agree that nutrition plays a vital role in the patient's well being. Causes of weight loss include inadequate intake of nutrients because the patient can not or does not want to eat, poor absorption of the food that is eaten, and changes in the patient's metabolism.

Weight loss may be managed by:

  • Eating smaller, more frequent meals
  • Eating high calorie, high protein foods
  • Receiving nutritional counseling

There are also medications which may help depending on the patient's desired goal. Some of these medications stimulate appetite, but do not usually increase weight, some stimulate appetite and cause slight weight gain, and still others help prevent nausea and vomiting.

Gastrointestinal Problems

Gastrointestinal problems may be associated with the disease process itself, or as a side effect of treatments or medications the patient is receiving. These may include nausea, vomiting, constipation, and diarrhea.

As mentioned above, there are medications which can help with nausea and vomiting. Your doctor or a nutritionist may also be able to provide eating hints and/or special diets tailored to fit the patient's individual needs. More on diarreah in mesothelioma patients.

Skin Problems

There are a variety of skin problems which may accompany cancer, including dryness, itching, rash, sores, and ulcers. It is important to treat these conditions as quickly as possible in order to reduce discomfort and the risk of infection.

  • Dryness may be lessened by adding baby or mineral oil to warm bath water, and by applying moisturizers. It is also important to drink 8-10 glasses of water per day.
  • Itching and rash may be lessened by adding baking soda to cool bath water, or by applying a cool, moist cloth to itchy areas. Avoid harsh laundry detergents, and change sheets and towels daily.
  • Keep skin clean and dry and check skin daily for pressure sores or ulcers which may become infected.


Anxiety is a hallmark of a life-threatening illness. Feelings of fear, worry, or apprehension may lead to long-term generalized anxiety, or short, intense panic attacks. Causes may include difficulty in coming to terms with the illness, fear of isolation and separation, poorly controlled pain, or side effects of medication.

Treatments to control anxiety may include stress management techniques, counseling, support of family and friends, and control of pain or side effects from medication.

Depression, while less common, often affects family members as well as the patient themselves. Depression may be related to loss of the ability to function, changing family roles, limited social and financial support, pain, or other symptoms such as shortness of breath.

Control of the above symptoms is accomplished through antidepressant medication, support and counseling, pain management, and stress management.


Diagnosing mesothelioma is often difficult, because the symptoms are similar to those of a number of other conditions. Diagnosis begins with a review of the patient̢۪s medical history, including any history of asbestos exposure. A complete physical examination may be performed, including x-rays of the chest or abdomen and lung function tests. A CT (or CAT) scan or an MRI may also be useful. A CT scan is a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body created by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. In an MRI, a powerful magnet linked to a computer is used to make detailed pictures of areas inside the body. These pictures are viewed on a monitor and can also be printed.

A biopsy is needed to confirm a diagnosis of mesothelioma. In a biopsy, a surgeon or a medical oncologist (a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating cancer) removes a sample of tissue for examination under a microscope by a pathologist. A biopsy may be done in different ways, depending on where the abnormal area is located. If the cancer is in the chest, the doctor may perform a thoracoscopy. In this procedure, the doctor makes a small cut through the chest wall and puts a thin, lighted tube called a thoracoscope into the chest between two ribs. Thoracoscopy allows the doctor to look inside the chest and obtain tissue samples. If the cancer is in the abdomen, the doctor may perform a peritoneoscopy. To obtain tissue for examination, the doctor makes a small opening in the abdomen and inserts a special instrument called a peritoneoscope into the abdominal cavity. If these procedures do not yield enough tissue, more extensive diagnostic surgery may be necessary.

If the diagnosis is mesothelioma, the doctor will want to learn the stage (or extent) of the disease. Staging involves more tests in a careful attempt to find out whether the cancer has spread and, if so, to which parts of the body. Knowing the stage of the disease helps the doctor plan treatment.

Mesothelioma is described as localized if the cancer is found only on the membrane surface where it originated. It is classified as advanced if it has spread beyond the original membrane surface to other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes, lungs, chest wall, or abdominal organs.

What are the risk factors for mesothelioma?

Working with asbestos is the major risk factor for mesothelioma. A history of asbestos exposure exists in almost all cases. However, mesothelioma has been reported in some individuals without any known exposure to asbestos. In rare cases, mesothelioma has also been associated with irradiation, intrapleural thorium dioxide (Thorotrast), and inhalation of other fibrous silicates, such as erionite.

The combination of smoking and asbestos exposure significantly increases a person's risk of developing cancer of the airways (lung cancer, bronchial carcinoma). The Kent brand of cigarettes used asbestos in its filters for the first few years of production in the 1950s and some cases of mesothelioma have resulted. Smoking current cigarettes does not appear to increase the risk of mesothelioma.

Some studies suggest that simian virus 40 (SV40) may act as a cofactor in the development of mesothelioma.


Doctor-Patient Communication

An open line of communication between a patient and his or her physician is vital when dealing with a serious disease such as mesothelioma. There will be many questions regarding treatment, whether palliative or aggressive, choices to deal with, and life issues to confront. Being informed and proactive in your care will give you a sense of empowerment.

Although most physicians have limited time to spend with each patient at appointments, it is important to address issues as they occur and resolve them to the satisfaction of all parties involved. Initially, this may mean going to your appointment with a list of symptoms or concerns, or questions regarding specific tests that are recommended. Once mesothelioma has been diagnosed, you may have questions regarding treatment options.

Most questions from patients stem from an initial diagnosis of mesothelioma and subsequent treatment options. Following are some frequently asked questions regarding these two important issues.

What Is My Diagnosis?

There are three types of mesothelioma. Pleural mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the lung (pleura), peritoneal mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the abdominal cavity (peritoneum), and pericardial mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining surrounding the heart (pericardium). Sub-types (or cell types) of mesothelioma are epithelioid (the most common, and considered the most amenable to treatment), sarcomatous (a much more aggressive form), and biphasic or mixed (a combination of both of the other cell types).

The structural appearance of cells under the microscope determine the cell or sub-type of mesothelioma. Epithelioid is the least aggressive; sarcomatoid, the most aggressive. The biphasic or mixed cell type shows structural elements of both of the other two.

epithelioid mesothelioma tissue
sarcomatoid mesothelioma tissue
biphasic mesothelioma tissue
mesothelioma tissue
mesothelioma tissue
mesothelioma tissue


Treatment options are often determined by the stage of mesothelioma a patient is in. There are three staging systems currently in use for pleural mesothelioma and each one measures somewhat different variables; peritoneal mesothelioma is not staged.

The oldest staging system and the one most often used is the Butchart System which is based mainly on the extent of primary tumor mass and divides mesotheliomas into four stages. The more recent TNM system considers variables of tumor in mass and spread, lymph node involvement, and metastasis. The Brigham System is the latest system and stages mesothelioma according to resectability (the ability to surgically remove) and lymph node involvement.

Butchart System – extent of primary tumor mass

  • Stage I: Mesothelioma is present in the right or left pleura and may also involve the diaphragm on the same side.
  • Stage II: Mesothelioma invades the chest wall or involves the esophagus, heart, or pleura on both sides. Lymph nodes in the chest may also be involved.
  • Stage III: Mesothelioma has penetrated through the diaphragm into the lining of the abdominal cavity or peritoneum. Lymph nodes beyond those in the chest may also be involved.
  • Stage IV: There is evidence of metastasis or spread through the bloodstream to other organs.

TNM System -- variables of T (tumor), N (lymph nodes), M (metastasis)

  • Stage I: Mesothelioma involves right or left pleura and may also have spread to the lung, pericardium, or diaphragm on the same side. Lymph nodes are not involved.
  • Stage II: Mesothelioma has spread from the pleura on one side to nearby lymph nodes next to the lung on the same side. It may also have spread into the lung, pericardium, or diaphragm on the same side.
  • Stage III: Mesothelioma is now in the chest wall, muscle, ribs, heart, esophagus, or other organs in the chest on the same side with or without spread to lymph nodes on the same side as the primary tumor.
  • Stage IV: Mesothelioma has spread into the lymph nodes in the chest on the side opposite the primary tumor, or extends to the pleura or lung on the opposite side, or directly extends into organs in the abdominal cavity or neck. Any distant metastases is included in this stage.

Brigham System: (variables of tumor resectability and nodal status)

  • Stage I: Resectable mesothelioma and no lymph node involvement
  • Stage II: Resectable mesothelioma but with lymph node involvement
  • Stage III: Unresectable mesothelioma extending into chest wall, heart, or through diaphragm, peritoneum; with or without extrathoracic lymph node involvement
  • Stage IV: Distant metastatic disease

How Was This Diagnosis Determined, and How Accurate Were the Tests?

Although you probably took many different tests leading up to your diagnosis, a tissue biopsy is normally the final determining factor. Following are some tests your doctor may recommend, and what may or may not be concluded from these tests.

  • X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs - See the imaging section for more on these techniques. On conventional x-ray film, mesothelioma appears as a markedly thickened, nodular, irregular pleural-based mass which covers the pleural surface. The tumor often encompasses the involved lung, but is only rarely seen bilaterally. Chest wall, diaphragmatic, and mediastinal invasion may be seen in advanced cases. Moderate to large pleural effusion is often noted on the affected side. On CT scan, pleural thickening greater than 1 cm can be identified in over 90% of cases; thickening which extends into the interlobular fissure is seen in 85% of cases. Absence of pleural thickening does not preclude mesothelioma, and at times, the only CT finding is that of pleural effusion.

  • Cytology - Testing of the pleural fluid for malignant cells is considered to have limited value in diagnosing mesothelioma. Negative or inconclusive readings account for nearly 85% of all fluid tested. Even with a positive fluid report, many doctors prefer to perform a confirming tissue biopsy as long as it does not compromise the patient's health.

  • Needle Biopsy - In this test, done under local anesthetic, a large hollow needle is inserted through the skin and into the chest cavity. The needle is then rotated, and as it is taken out, tissue samples are collected. Because of the small sample size of the tissue, this type of biopsy is considered to be only 25-60% accurate in diagnosing mesothelioma. Because tumor seeding may occur along the needle tract in approximately 20% of patients, local radiation therapy may be used in conjunction with this test.

  • Open biopsy - This type of biopsy is considered to be the most accurate for mesothelioma diagnosis, and is the procedure of choice because it affords the pathologist a larger tissue sample.. It is done in a hospital under general anesthetic. As with a needle biopsy, local radiation may be used because of the possibility of tumor seeding.

Can I Be Treated by the Doctor Who Diagnosed My Mesothelioma?

If the doctor who diagnosed your mesothelioma is your primary physician, he will most likely refer you to a local oncologist for treatment. The oncologist may offer what he or she feels are the best treatment options, or, if their knowledge of this disease is limited, may suggest you seek out a doctor who specializes in mesothelioma. Most often these physicians are located at larger, teaching hospitals such as those listed in the Comprehensive Cancer Center Section. These facilities are ranked as state-of-the-art cancer centers, and are highly respected for their patient care and innovative cancer treatments. If your choice of treatment involves a radical surgical procedure or a clinical trial involving new, as yet unproven drugs, these facilities may be best for you. If your treatment involves an already-approved, standard form of chemotherapy, this can be carried out locally.

What Treatment Options Will I Be Offered?

Treatment options may vary according to the age and over-all health of the patient, and the extent of the disease. It is important to be informed of all available options for your particular case, so that you can make decision on the option you feel most comfortable with. Surgery, chemotherapy, and clinical trials, as well as new approaches such as photodynamic therapy, immunotherapy, and gene therapy may be offered. Speak openly with your doctor regarding suggested procedures. Questions may include:

  • Why is this procedure best for me?
  • What does the procedure entail?
  • What are the advantages/disadvantages of this treatment (i.e, will this procedure limit my eligibility for other treatments)?
  • What are the possible risks or adverse side effects?
  • What are the response, survival, and mortality rates associated with this procedure?

Is Palliative Treatment an Option?

In some circumstances, age, contributing health problems, or advanced disease may make aggressive treatment impossible. In these cases, palliative care (that which treats the symptoms, but not the disease itself) may be appropriate. If you opt for palliative care, it is doubly important to communicate fully with your doctor. Many symptoms of mesothelioma can be alleviated or substantially lessened if you are completely open with your doctor. Each time you have an appointment, tell your doctor how you feel, what discomfort you are experiencing, and your level of pain. A good doctor should be willing to address your questions and concerns.

Check our mesothelioma glossary.

More on tumor markers.


The early symptoms of mesothelioma are generally non-specific, and may lead to a delay in diagnosis. Sometimes resembling viral pneumonia, pleural mesothelioma patients may present with shortness of breath, chest pain and/or persistent cough; some patients show no symptoms at all. A chest x-ray may show a build-up of fluid or pleural effusion (discussed below). The right lung is affected 60% of the time, with involvement of both lungs being seen in approximately 5% of patients at the time of diagnosis. Less common symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include fever, night sweats and weight loss. Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma may include pain or swelling in the abdomen due to a build-up of fluid, nausea, weight loss, bowel obstruction, anemia or swelling of the feet.


Pleural Effusion

One of the most common symptoms of mesothelioma is a pleural effusion, or an accumulation of fluid between the parietal pleura (the pleura covering the chest wall and diaphragm) and the visceral pleura (the pleura covering the lungs). Both of these membranes are covered with mesothelial cells which, under normal conditions, produce a small amount of fluid that acts as a lubricant between the chest wall and the lung. Any excess fluid is absorbed by blood and lymph vessels maintaining a balance. When too much fluid forms, the result is an effusion.


Pleural effusion is broken down into two categories, transudates and exudates. A transudate is a clear fluid that forms not because the pleural surfaces are diseased, but because of an imbalance between the normal production and removal of the fluid. The most common cause of transudative fluid is congestive heart failure. An exudate, which is often cloudy and contains many cells and proteins, results from disease of the pleura itself, and is common to mesothelioma. To determine whether a fluid is a transudate or exudate, a diagnostic thoracentesis, in which a needle or catheter is used to obtain a fluid sample, may be conducted.


As the volume of fluid increases, shortness of breath, known as "dyspnea", and sometimes pain, ranging from mild to stabbing, may occur. Some patients may experience a dry cough. When the doctor listens to the patient’s chest with a stethoscope, normal breath sounds are muted, and tapping on the chest will reveal dull rather than hollow sounds.


Diagnosis of pleural effusion is usually accomplished with a simple chest x-ray, although CT scans or ultrasound may also be used. A special x-ray technique, called a lateral decubitus film, may be used to detect smaller effusions or to enable the physician to estimate of the amount of fluid present. If the underlying cause of the effusion is readily apparent (such as in the case of severe congestive heart failure), sampling of the fluid may not be necessary, however, because pleural effusion may be symptomatic of a number of disease processes from benign to malignant, a fluid sample is generally taken. Diagnostic thoracentesis, in which cells are extracted from the pleural cavity, is commonly done when the possibility of mesothelioma exists, however, in up to 85% of cases, the fluid tests negative or inconclusive even though cancer is present. It is ultimately a needle biopsy of the pleura (lining of the lung) or an open surgical biopsy which confirms a mesothelioma diagnosis.


Pleural effusion caused by heart failure or infection can usually be resolved by directing treatment at the cause, however, when testing has realized no diagnosis, and fluid continues to build or recur, doctors may recommend chest tube drainage and chemical pleurodesis. Chemical pleurodesis is a technique in which a sclerosing agent is used to abrade the pleural surfaces producing an adhesion between the parietal and visceral pleurae. This will prevent further effusion by eliminating the pleural space. Talc appears to be the most effective agent for pleurodesis, with a success rate of nearly 95%. It is highly effective when administered by either poudrage or slurry. Poudrage is the most widely used method of instilling talc into the pleural space. Before spraying the talc, the medical team removes all pleural fluid to completely collapse the lung. After the talc is administered, they inspect the pleural cavity to be sure the talc has been evenly distributed over the pleural surface. Some doctors prefer to use talc mixed with saline solution which forms a wet slurry that can roll around the pleural cavity.

Fatigue in Mesothelioma Patients

Mesothelioma Pain


At some point in our lives, nearly all of us have been exposed to asbestos in the air we breathe and the water we drink; from natural deposits in the earth, and from the deterioration of asbestos products around us. Most of us, however, do not become ill as a result of our exposure. More commonly, those who at some point are diagnosed with asbestos disease, have worked in jobs where more substantial exposure occurred over longer periods of time. Nevertheless, cases of mesothelioma have been documented as the result of lesser exposure, affecting family members of workers who came into contact with asbestos and brought it home on their clothing, skin or hair, or affecting those who lived in close proximity to asbestos manufacturing facilities. Symptoms of asbestos disease usually are not be apparent until decades after exposure.

Asbestos was used commercially in North America as early as the late 1800s, but its use increased dramatically during the World War II era when shipyards produced massive numbers of ships for the war effort. Since that time, asbestos-containing products were used by the construction and building trades, the automotive industry and the manufacturing industry. All told, more than 5,000 products contained asbestos.

For more than 50 years, products containing asbestos remained unregulated, and the manufacturers of those products continued to prosper, knowing full well that many of the millions of workers who came into contact with their products would ultimately suffer as the result of their actions. Finally, in the late 1970s, the Consumer Products Safety Commission banned the use of asbestos in wallboard patching compounds and artificial ash for gas fireplaces because the fiber could easily be released during use. In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency banned all new use of asbestos, but uses established prior to that time were still allowed. Although awareness of the dangers of asbestos and public concern over the issue have led to a decline in domestic consumption over the years, a total ban on asbestos has not come to fruition. Asbestos is still imported, still used and still dangerous.

Although it is suggested that the number of mesothelioma cases in the U.S. has reached its peak and has begun to drop, a forecast released by the National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (SEER), in April, 2003, projected the total number of American male mesothelioma cases from 2003-2054 to be approximately 71,000. This number, however, does not take into consideration events such as the World Trade Center disaster on September 11, 2001, when millions of New Yorkers were potentially exposed to air filled with carcinogenic asbestos particles. When the latency period for asbestos disease is factored in, cases of mesothelioma will continue to be diagnosed for years to come.

What kinds of other resources are available for people with mesothelioma?

There are numerous cancer web sites, some specific to mesothelioma. Because they are often difficult to locate, we have listed some relevant medical sites under Leading Cancer Links. We are always on the lookout for more so check our site often.

Where can I find information on living with mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma Aid is a good website for resource for families dealing with mesothelioma. It includes advice and referrals to other resources for coping with cancer, caregiving, financial challenges, and support groups. Alternatively, contact us here at Mesothelioma Web for help finding resouces for living with this disease.

Is there any promising research or are there promising drugs for mesothelioma?

Research is being conducted at various cancer centers all over the United States as well as by pharmaceutical companies. To find more about these studies, click on Clinical Trials. To read abstracts of the latest journal articles on mesothelioma research and to access these articles, click on Medical Journal Articles; or Mesothelioma News for news articles. A recent study of Alimta showed patients living much longer with Alitma than other chemotherapy drugs.

What is the prognosis for mesothelioma?

Like most cancers, the prognosis for this disease often depends on how early it is diagnosed and how aggressively it is treated. Click on Treatment Options to find out more about traditional and new approaches.

How long does it take after exposure for the disease to show up?

People exposed in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s are now being diagnosed with mesothelioma because of the long latency period of asbestos disease.

How much exposure does it take to get the disease?

An exposure of as little as one or two months can result in mesothelioma 30 or 40 years later. Mesothelioma cause.

How do you get Mesothelioma?

Most people with malignant mesothelioma have worked on jobs where they breathed asbestos. Others have been exposed to asbestos in a household environment, often without knowing it. More about the different ways in which people have been exposed to asbestos.

What is peritoneal mesothelioma?

Peritoneal mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the abdominal cavity. This form of cancer makes up approximately one-fifth to one-third of the total number of mesothelioma cases diagnosed. More on peritoneal mesothelioma.

What is Mesothelioma?

The National Cancer Institute states that: "Malignant mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, is a disease in which cancer (malignant) cells are found in the sac lining the chest (the pleura), the lining of the abdominal cavity (the peritoneum) or the lining around the heart (the pericardium)."
lung anatomy lung with mesothelioma