Understanding Metastasis and Mesothelioma
There are several therapeutic approaches that doctors may take in order to treat malignant mesothelioma. Both chemotherapy and radiation are capable of killing diseased cells. Additionally, some patients may be eligible for surgery that can remove as much of the cancerous tissue as possible.
However, even with these treatments, patients who have mesothelioma are still at risk for medical complications if their disease metastasizes.
What is metastasis?
We understand cancer as a disease in which a group of cells within one piece of tissue in the body goes rogue and multiplies far beyond what is considered a normal, healthy rate. This leads to the growth of tumors, which can become deadly if they interfere with the function of the surrounding tissues.
Metastasis occurs when these malignant cells break off from the tumor, travel to another part of the body and produce another tumor. Experts from the American Cancer Society (ACS) describe this process as occurring through one of three pathways in the body: circulation through the lymph nodes, circulation through the blood vessels or along the surfaces that line the body’s cavities. Mesothelioma is one of the few cancers that can spread via the cavity linings.
The metastasis process takes place over four steps:
- A group of tumor cells stops growing.
- This group breaks away from the tumor.
- The cells move out of the affected tissue and either enter one of the circulatory systems, or travels along the body cavity lining.
- The cells settle in a new location and grow into a new tumor.
Metastasis is deadly in part because its symptoms can easily be mistaken for another health condition.
Metastasis can affect mesothelioma patients
When doctors need to determine how bad a case of mesothelioma is, one of factors that they measure is how far the cancerous cells have spread.
For example, the National Cancer Institute describes localized stage I mesothelioma as being confined to the lining of the chest wall, diaphragm or possibly the lung. However, in the advanced stages of the disease, cancer may spread beyond these tissues and affect the diaphragm and lungs themselves, as well as the lymph nodes, trachea, esophagus, fatty tissues, soft tissues, peritoneum, ribs, the sac that encapsulates the heart, or the heart itself. In some stage IV cases, the malignancy may travel even further and strike the spine, brain, prostate and thyroid.
Scientists are taking a closer look
In order to tackle metastasis more effectively, some scientists who study cancer have decided to make this specific phenomenon their niche.
“Fewer than 8 percent of researchers mention the word ‘metastasis’ in their grant applications, in the context of actually working on the problem…Figuring out how to prevent cancer – a key research focus today – would be the best approach…but that’s of little help to patients who already have cancer,” said Dan Welch, a member of the ACS Scientific Council, as quoted by the ACS. “To prevent something, you have to know its cause. We have no idea why cancer cells spread, let alone what prompts them to disseminate throughout the body.”
One possible key to understanding metastasis is the study of the tumor microenvironment in which breakaway cells settle. Scientists are also exploring the genes that are involved in metastasis, and why certain clusters of breakaway cells can remain dormant for decades before forming new tumors.
The Environmental Working Group projects the incidence of asbestos-related diseases to increase for another 10 years or so. At Kazan Law, we are optimistic that scientists are on the right track to helping such cancer patients and truly understanding the cause of metastasis.