If you’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you have many treatment options that can extend your life expectancy and improve your quality of life.
Every year, doctors make treatments for mesothelioma better, and increase the life expectancy of patients diagnosed with this rare disease. Traditional treatments—surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy—improve as doctors gain more experience treating patients. In clinical trials, researchers are creating, testing, and refining new treatments, some of which may lead to a cure in the future. Learning more about traditional and emerging treatments can help you get the information you need to improve your prognosis.
Types of Treatment
Your doctor will create a course of treatment for you based on your diagnosis, which includes the cancer stage, cell type, and location of the mesothelioma. These factors play an important role in how effective a treatment will be, and your doctor will use them to decide if you’re eligible for curative or palliative treatment.
Doctors use curative treatments to remove mesothelioma from a patient’s body. If you’re diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma—and eligible for curative treatment—your doctor may suggest you have one of the two standard surgeries for pleural mesothelioma: the extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP) or the pleurectomy with decortication (P/D). If you’re diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, the only curative surgery available to you is cytoreduction, which doctors often combine with heated chemotherapy in a procedure called cytoreduction with HIPEC.
A treatment is palliative when your doctor uses it to relieve pain or discomfort caused by symptoms. The most common palliative treatment used for patients with pleural mesothelioma is a thoracentesis; patients with peritoneal mesothelioma patients receive a paracentesis.
Multimodal therapy is the combination of two or more treatments, usually surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. Using multiple treatments, doctors can attack mesothelioma in more than one way. For example, they’ll use cytoreductive surgery to remove most of a tumor, and heated chemotherapy to destroy any remaining cancer cells . A study by researchers at Dana Farber Cancer Center—one of the highest–rated cancer centers in the U.S.—showed that 22 percent of patients lived at least 5 years after having multimodal therapy.
Surgery for Mesothelioma
Surgery for Patients with Pleural Mesothelioma
Pleurectomy with Decortication (P/D)
A pleurectomy with decortication (P/D) is a surgery doctors use to remove the lining of the lung most affected by tumor growth, and any visible tumors on the surface of the lung itself. If mesothelioma has spread beyond the lining of your lung, your doctor may also remove parts of the diaphragm and pericardium, the protective lining of the heart.
The goal of using a P/D is to relieve symptoms of mesothelioma without sacrificing the lung. 90 percent of patients who have the procedure experience a reduction of symptoms, and retain 100 percent of their breathing function. The median survival rate for patients after a P/D is 20 months.
Extrapleural Pneumonectomy (EPP)
A doctor will use an extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP) to remove the entire lung, and lining of the lung, affected by mesothelioma. To prevent the disease from coming back, he or she may also remove the diaphragm, nearby lymph nodes, and the lining of the heart. A study on the effectiveness of the EPP demonstrated that patients treated with the procedure survived up to 3 years after surgery—3 times the average life expectancy of patients with pleural mesothelioma.
Surgery for Patients with Peritoneal Mesothelioma
Surgeons use a peritonectomy to remove any part of the peritoneum—the protective lining of the abdomen—affected by tumor growth. They also remove any visible tumors that may have spread to nearby organs, like the diaphragm or stomach.
Cytoreductive surgery is when a surgeon combines multiple peritonectomies to completely remove mesothelioma from the abdominal cavity. If you’re eligible for chemotherapy, your doctor will combine cytoreductive surgery with heated chemotherapy—in a procedure called cytoreduction with HIPEC—to maximize its effectiveness.
Chemotherapy for Mesothelioma
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to attack and kill cancer. Its effectiveness depends on your diagnosis, specifically on the cancer stage and location of the mesothelioma. Chemotherapeutic drugs work better when they are combined with other drugs—the most common combination of drugs being Alimta and cisplatin—or surgery. Doctors use chemotherapy before surgery (neoadjuvant), during surgery (intraoperative), or after surgery (adjuvant); and give it to patients in one of two ways:
Systemic chemotherapy travels through your bloodstream, attacking any cancer cell it contacts. Your doctor will give you systemic chemotherapy in pills or through an IV.
This form of chemotherapy occurs when your doctor gives you drugs during surgery. Depending the procedure, he or she applies the chemotherapy directly into the lung or abdominal cavity, and usually heats the drugs to increase their cancer-killing effectiveness.
Depending on your tolerance, chemotherapy may affect you severly, mildy, or not at all. Its side effects disappear slowly after treatment, and vary according to the type of drug, amount of dose, and length of time it’s given.
Common side effects experience during chemotherapy are:
- Hair loss
- Loss of appetite
Radiation Therapy for Mesothelioma
Radiation therapy is the use of high energy rays to kill mesothelioma cells. If you’re having radiation therapy for mesothelioma, your doctor will use it by itself—as a palliative treatment—or combine it with surgery. With radiation therapy, you won’t experience as many side effects as chemotherapy, because doctors can target tumors, minimizing damage to healthy cells.
Radiation therapy commonly used for mesothelioma patients include:
Three-Dimensional Radiation Treatment (3D-CRT)
Using 3D scans of the tumor, doctors customize the amount and intensity of each radiation dose according to its size and shape. Customizing the amount of radiation helps doctors target tumors more effectively, and minimizes damage to healthy, non-cancerous cells surrounding the mesothelioma.
Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT)
IMRT is an advanced form of 3D-CRT. With it, doctors uses computers to adjust the amount and intensity of a radiation beam as it passes over a tumor. Researchers in a recent study showed that IMRT used after an extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP) produced a median overall survival rate of just over 2 years. 41 percent of these patients survived an additional 3 years after the procedure.
Side Effects of Radiation Therapy
If you have radiation therapy, you’ll experience less side effects than those caused by chemotherapy. Doctors do, however, have to use higher doses of radiation to get the same cancer-killing effectiveness as chemotherapeutic drugs. When they increase its amount and intensity, the chances of radiation damaging healthy cells also increases—and more side effects can occur.
Radiation therapy can cause the following side effects:
- Inflammation of the esophagus
- Skin redness
- Hair loss
Palliative Treatments for Mesothelioma
Doctors use palliative treatments to relieve pain caused by symptoms of all stages of mesothelioma. If you’ve been diagnosed with stage-three or stage-four mesothelioma, your doctor may use them to complement curative treatments. Stage-three and stage-four patients receive palliative treatment to reduce pain and increase their quality of life.
Several types of palliative treatments are available to mesothelioma patients—which one your doctor chooses depends on your diagnosis.
A thoracentesis is the draining of excess fluid from the pleural cavity—the space between the inner and outer lining of the lungs—with a needle. It reduces pressure caused by too much fluid, which pushes on the lung and makes it difficult to breath.
Video assisted thoracoscopic talc pleurodesis (VATS)
Assisted by a camera, your doctor drains excess fluid from the pleural cavity, and seals it with talc powder. The talc causes an inflammatory reaction that closes the pleural space. Over time, scar tissue forms and prevents more fluid from collecting there. Doctors use this procedure to reduce chest pain and relieve pressure caused by buildups of fluid.
Doctors use partial pleurectomy to remove the lining of a lung affected by mesothelioma. Tumor growth hardens the lung’s lining, which makes breathing difficult. Removing part of the hardened lining lets the lung re-expand and makes breathing easier.
A paracentesis is the draining of excess fluid from the abdominal cavity—the space that contains organs such as the intestines, stomach, and liver—with a needle. It eases the pressure caused by the buildup of fluid in this space. Too much fluid in the abdominal cavity creates pressure on the organs, causing intense discomfort and pain.
New Treatments in Clinical Trials
If you’re not eligible for traditional treatments, like surgery or chemotherapy, participating in a clinical trial may give you a chance to improve your prognosis with new treatments. In clinical trials, researchers develop new ways to fight mesothelioma like immunotherapy, a treatment that strengthens your immune system and helps kill mesothelioma cells.
Learn more about clinical trials, new treatments, and how to improve your life expectancy in our free informational guide—order a copy today. You can also speak to an experienced member of our Patient Help Team about anything and everything related to mesothelioma. A member of our team can even help you find treatment and connect you to doctors—start a conversation about improving your prognosis today.