What Causes Shortness of Breath in Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma victims often complain of amazing shortness of breath. What causes this?


I’m a mesothelioma trial attorney, or a mesothelioma lawyer in Chicago. And I can tell you that almost every client who I’ve ever represented who was diagnosed with mesothelioma complained of shortness of breath. And this is generally caused by fluid on the chest. It’s something that the doctors call a ‘pleural effusion.’

Now we have a diagram here to help us discuss this a little better. And in this diagram, what we see here — this area here — this is the human lung. And this area outside of this, these are ribs. It’s a cross-section. So these are the ribs, the bony ribs. And this section here — you see it, it’s in off white — this is the area of the pleura.

And the pleura are the saran wrap like wrapping on the outside of the lung. And almost adhering to the lung itself is the visceral pleura and almost adherent to the inside of the ribcage is the parietal pleura.

And what happens as we breathe — breathing is an involuntary process. So our diaphragm is a muscle in our abdomen, which involuntarily on its own (we don’t have to work to do it) it just causes our lungs to push up and down, it causes us to breathe. And when that happens our lungs move within our ribcage.


And if it wasn’t for the pleura our lungs would scrape against the inside of the ribcage. But what happens is there’s a little bit of fluid between the parietal pleura (which again is on the inside of the ribs) and the visceral pleura (which is adherent to the outside of the lungs) and that fluid between the two pleural surfaces allows our lungs to move easily with no pain, no discomfort inside our bony ribcage.

But when someone gets a cancerous tumor – as is represented in this photograph, this is the mesothelioma tumor — when someone develops this tumor it’s kind of like when you bang your knee. What happens to your knee? It swells. Our body has an inflammatory response. It’s the same way with mesothelioma.

In this pleural space between the parietal (against the ribs) and the visceral pleura (against the lungs), in that space between those two pleural surfaces instead of just a little bit of fluid to allow the lungs to move now there’s a lot of fluid. And then a lot more fluid. And what happens when fluid develops in this space? Well, the bony ribs can’t be moved, the fluid can’t push them out of the way. So what does it do? It pushes into the spongy lung tissue and contracts this spongy lung tissue and causes shortness of breath. The victim of asbestos cancer (the patient) feels like they can’t get a full breath because their lungs can’t expand and that’s from a pleural effusion.

Now what do doctors do in order to deal with a pleural effusion? Well it’s very simple. The doctors do something called a “thoracentesis.” That’s a complicated medical word that just means that they put a needle in — usually in the side — and they drain the fluid out. Some clients of mine over the years have had up to 2 large soda bottles of fluid drained from this pleural space. And the great thing about this process is the patient feels so much better afterwards because now they can breathe better because now that fluid is out of there. And during this procedure, sometimes the doctors will do something called “a talc pleurodesis.”

It’s a complicated word but all it means is they take talc and during this surgical procedure they insert the talc between the two layers of pleura, between the visceral pleura and the parietal pleura. They insert some talc in there. Why do they do that? Because it causes scarring, which in this circumstance is a good thing because it causes the two pleural surfaces to scar together and no more fluid will be generated. So it relieves the potential for getting more buildup of fluid in that area.

So these are some of the things that are done to deal with fluid buildup as it relates to mesothelioma in the chest. I’m sure you have many more questions about mesothelioma and all the medical interventions that can be done to help relieve some of the serious symptoms that victims of mesothelioma have.

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