Receiving much press in recent years ~ both because of the number of people affected, as well as the sometimes sensational, multi-million-dollar lawsuits that have been filed, fought, won & lost ~ is a rare form of cancer known as malignant mesothelioma, whose principle cause is exposure to aspestos fibers.
Asbestos, a known toxin since the 1930’s, is an inexpensive fibrous material that is extremely durable and heat resistant. Because of these properties it was, for many years, heavily used in industry throughout the United States. Even after its carcinogenic (cancer-causing) properties were discovered, many industries continued to use asbestos, putting at risk those who were exposed to it. Asbestos-containing products remain, to this day, in buildings, ships, industrial facilities and other environments. The EPA has stated that asbestos “presents an unreasonable risk of injury to human health.” Even low levels of asbestos exposure can trigger not only mesothelioma, but also asbestosis, pleural disease and lung cancer: diseases that are caused almost exclusively by asbestos. The statistics for recent years show an average of 3000 people per year dying of aspestos-related causes.
Because aspestos products have been used so heavily by industry, many people have come into contact with asbestos fibers via their jobs (e.g. via occupational exposure). There is also a risk to the family members of those working in at-risk occupations; this exposure is called paraoccupational exposure. People who live near sites that have asbestos around the facility are also at risk. Refineries, power plants, factories, shipyards, steel mills and building demolition are types of work sites that can release asbestos fibers into the environment and contaminate nearby residential neighborhoods. Mesothelioma can result from very small fibers or dust particles at low exposure levels. (Most such exposure would likely have occurred prior to 1973, but the latency period can be up to 40 years for most types of lung cancer to develop.) Trades in which aspestos exposure is likely include:
~ Asbestos product manufacturing (insulation, roofing, building, materials)
~ Automotive repair (brakes & clutches)
~ Offshore rust removals
~ Oil refineries
~ Power plants
~ Sand or abrasive manufacturers
~ Shipyards / ships / ship builders
~ Steel mills
~ Tile cutters
Malignant mesothelioma is the formal medical name for this form of lung cancer. (A lay term for the equivalent condition is Aspestos Cancer). Mesothelioma is the term used to describe a cancerous tumor which involves the mesothelial cells of an organ, usually the lungs, heart or abdominal organs. Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma or cancer of the lung lining is the most common form of mesothelioma cancer. Peritoneal Mesothelioma is cancer of the stomach lining and is the next most common form.
The onset of mesothelioma asbestos lung cancer is usually very slow: the time between aspestos exposure and the onset of symptoms can be many years. The most common mesothelioma symptoms are chest pain and pain in the lower back. Sometimes the pain is accompanied by difficulty breathing, coughing, weight loss and fever.
Symptoms for Pleural Mesothelioma (involving the lung / chest area) are:
~ chest pain and pain in the lower back
~ difficulty breathing
~ weight loss
~ muscle weakness and sensory loss
~ swelling of the face and arms
~ coughing up blood
Symptoms of Peritoneal Mesothelioma (involving the abdominal / stomach cavity, liver, spleen or the bowel) are:
~ abdominal bloating due to fluid accumulation in the abdominal cavity
~ nausea & vomiting
~ swelling of the feet
~ impaired bowel function
Diagnosing mesothelioma (within the framework of western medicine) can be challenging, because the symptoms are quite similar to those of other illnesses and conditions. A western medical diagnosis of mesothelioma might include any or all of the following: a review of the patient’s medical history and asbestos exposure; a complete physical examination, with x-rays of the chest or abdomen and lung function test; a CAT scan or MRI of the chest or abdomen; a biopsy.
In the case of pleural mesothelioma, a thoracoscopy may be performed where the doctor looks inside the chest cavity with an instrument called a thoracoscope that is put into the chest between two ribs. The thoracoscope allows the doctor to gather tissue samples and look inside the chest. For cancer in the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma), a western MD may perform a peritoneoscopy where a small opening is made in the abdomen and an instrument called a peritoneoscope is inserted in the abdomen cavity to collect tissue.
If mesothelioma is indeed diagnosed, the next step will be to determine the stage of the disease. The “staging” process helps to determine which part of the body the cancer has spread to, which in turn dictates a treatment plan. If the cancer is found only on the membrane surface where it originated it is called “localized.” If the has spread beyond the original membrane surface to other parts of the body it is called “advanced.”
Western Medical Treatment Options (chosen in accordance with the age and/or health of the patient) include surgery, radiation therapy, and/or chemotherapy. Surgery ~ during which part of the lining of the chest or abdomen may be removed ~ is a common treatment option for mesothelioma. For pleural mesothelioma, either a full lung or the muscle below the lungs that help with breathing (the diaphragm) may be removed. Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. This type of therapy only affects the cancer cells in the treated area. Chemotherapy uses anticancer drugs to kill cancer cells throughout the body. The drugs used to treat mesothelioma are sometimes given by injection in a vein.
Along with surgery and radiation, using a needle or thin tube to drain fluid that has built up in the chest or abdomen is one way to relieve some of the symptoms and control the pain associated with this condition. In addition, medications may be given through a tube in the chest to prevent fluid from accumulating and, once again, reducing some of the more painful symptoms.
The physical and psychological strain of malignant mesothelioma can be severe, and western medical treatments meant to heal often cause unexpected and irritating side effects. For these reasons, it is important for the mesothelioma patient to gather as much information as possible about how malignant mesothelioma progresses as a disease, as well as to explore alternative or complementary treatment options (see below). And if a western treatment is chosen as part of the healing protocol, it’s important to know what side effects to expect and how to minimize them.
Along with managing the disease itself, Mesothelioma patients oftentimes find themselves embroiled in legal battles (reminiscent of the Karen Silkwood case) ~ in class-action or individual lawsuits against the companies or corporations by whom they were employed at the time of their exposure to aspestos. Aspestos Law has emerged as a specialty, with mesothelioma attorneys and lawyers positioned to support their clients in establishing a link between a specific aspestos exposure and their subsequent contracting of mesothelioma … and ~ to the extent that they are successful ~ taking, in the process, a handsome cut of the settlements.
Because of the physical, emotional, psychological & spiritual (as well as legal!) challenges involved with a disease such as mesothelioma, creating a strong support system is a vital part of the healing process. As has been documented from the experiences of many with so-called “terminal” illnesses, the introspection that arises in the face of such a challenge oftentimes has the “hidden benefit” of allowing what is “really important” to emerge. For this to happen, however, requires the creation of an (internal & external) environment conducive to such explorations. And what are the “building blocks” to creating such supportive (non-toxic!) environments?
Everyone can improve their energy level and promote healthy cell growth by getting adequate rest and relaxation, good nutrition, some exercise and having some fun! Here are some practices commonly recommended for cancer patients:
~ Learn relaxation techniques (yoga or qigong are an excellent choice)
~ Share your feelings honestly with family, friends, a spiritual advisor or a counselor
~ Keep a journal to help organize your thoughts
~ Find a source of spiritual strength
~ Pray or meditate
~ Find time to be alone
~ Go for walks
~ Remain involved with work and leisure activities to the extent possible
~ find a support group or “chat room” to share your experiences with others in a similar situation
~ as much as possible, maintain a positive attitude, and optimistic outlook
Of the many alternatives or compliments to western medical treatment, qigong is one that stands out as particularly hopeful. In China, there are entire hospitals devoted to the use of qigong techniques exclusively, for the treatment of cancer as well as countless other conditions. Binhui He is one Medical Qigong Master (http://www.wishus.org/research.asp?cat=research&index=2)
who has had large success working with cancer patients. His qigong anti-cancer therapy protocol includes, in his own words, the following five steps:
~ Attitude change: Turn traditional searching help outside into searching help inside. It is the immune function and self-healing power that cure cancer eventually! While fear-of-cancer effect is the real incurable disease, since it keeps patient stressed and lowers their immune functions. Instead, consider cancer part of the body, communicate with it by consciousness power, and eliminate the source leading to cancer in the first place.
~ Intensive Qigong practice: empty mind without desire, forget about disease, trouble, environment and self; rapidly stimulate immune functions and body potential by intensive Qi cultivation.
~ Energetic Fasting (Bigu): Cut the supply for tumors so as to inhibit the rapid growth of cancer; and help to strengthen immune function effectively (Need under the close supervision of an experienced Qigong healer).
~ Shatter Tumor by Strong Qi: Focus of mind power and strong Qi can shatter after a period of Bigu.
~ Collective Qi Adjustment: Group practice of Five-Element Qigong to form a strong Qi field and to strengthen the inhibitory effect of the Qi cultivation.
In the United State, Dr. Kam Yuen (http://www.yuenmethod.com) is a 35th-generation Shaolin Master who has created a healing system which combines the power of qigong practice with the diagnostic techniques of applied kinesiology. He, also, has had great success working with a whole variety of conditions, including cancer.
Similar in many ways to Taoist qigong practices are the Tibetan practices described in Tulku Thondup’s two books: Boundless Healing: Meditation Exercises To Enlighten The Mind & Heal The Body; and The Healing Power Of Mind. The specifics of the practices vary widely, though what many have in common is the use of an internally-cultivated energy of “blissful heat” to resolve whatever imbalances are at the root of the condition. He presents, in these two books, a number of practices designed specifically for those working with cancer. Tulku Thondup also travels quite widely, offering workshops & retreats in which he presents these Tibetan healing techniques.
Chinese Medicine offers yet another paradigm through which to examine mesothelioma. The diagnostic system of Chinese Medicine is quite dramatically different from that of western medicine. If in fact we were to present to the Chinese physician, say, ten people who had all received the western medical diagnosis “mesothelioma,” it is entirely possible that this Chinese physician would ~ after his or her examinations ~ present us with a different diagnosis for each of those ten people! (The reasons for this are complex, and beyond the scope of this essay, but the basic reason is because Chinese medical perception looks at patterns present within the entire person, and in relation to every aspect of their lives; while western medicine tends to focus primarily on individual symptomotology.)
In Chinese Medicine it is understood that emotional imbalance is often a root cause of physical imbalance. The emotional state that damages the lungs (and its corresponding physical structures, which include the skin & mesothelial cells), and which also tends to appear when the lungs are out of balance, is grief. The emotional state which signals a balanced, healthy lung organ system is courage. There is also a belief, in Taoist philosophy (the root of Chinese Medicine), that the lungs are the equivalent in the human body to the atmosphere/ionosphere of the Earth. So an aspect of Chinese Medical treatment for a lung imbalance of any sort might well be to do practices to release (individual & planetary) grief ~ e.g. a “healing sounds” qigong practice ~ and to augment our feelings of courage and righteousness: our willingness and capacity to stand up strongly for Truth, for Beauty, for Love, for Kindness … or whatever other values we hold most deeply, for ourselves, our communities and our planet.