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Here's how doctors stage malignant pleural mesothelioma

You likely know it’s better to catch cancers such as mesothelioma in their early stages. But do you know what the stages represent? There’s more to staging cancer than most people know.

As the American Cancer Society notes, staging cancer is the process of determining how far it has spread, if at all. Doctors must first diagnose the disease. Then they stage it according to three factors.

Three factors for staging mesothelioma

Doctors group cancers into one of four different stages—stages I through IV. The higher the stage number, the more the cancer has spread and the more serious it is. Of the different forms of mesothelioma, only malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM) has an official staging system. It is also the most common form of mesothelioma.

To determine the stage of MPM, doctors check its spread in three key areas:

  • The pleura and surrounding regions. The pleura are the linings around your lungs, heart and other organs. They create lubricating fluids that allow your organs to move against each other. When doctors catch tumors before they spread beyond the pleura, surgery may be an option.
  • The lymph nodes. Cancers can break apart and spread to remote parts of the body through either of two systems—your blood and your lymph system. Cancers that travel through the lymph system may take root in lymph nodes and form new tumors. These tumors may indicate the cancer is fast-growing and more likely to return after treatment.
  • Other organs and body parts. If the cancer continues spreading, tumors may form in other organs. MPM may spread to organs like the lungs and liver. It may also spread into the bones or from the linings of the lungs and heart into the lining of the abdomen.

Doctors use a range of tests to measure the spread. These often include CT scans, MRIs and PET scans. They need to stage the cancer correctly because knowing the stage is key to planning the best course of treatment.

Catching malignant pleural mesothelioma in an earlier stage

One of the problems with MPM is that doctors often fail to diagnose it until the latter stages. This usually means they can no longer consider many of the more aggressive treatment options, such as surgery. It’s hard for doctors to diagnose MPM because it is relatively rare and shares most of its symptoms with more common cancers and other diseases. Accordingly, doctors tend to rule out those options first.

If you suspect your symptoms may indicate mesothelioma, you want to make sure your doctor understands your history of asbestos exposure. Because nearly all mesothelioma cases start from exposure to asbestos, this information can help point your doctor in the right direction.

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