Currently no cure exists for mesothelioma, and the American Cancer Society has explained that patients with mesothelioma generally have a short average life expectancy of 4 to 18 months after diagnosis. Only 10% of mesothelioma patients survive more than 5 years after initial diagnosis. Since its recognition as a lethal form of cancer that develops after asbestos exposure, doctors and scientists have struggled to identify a course of treatment that can improve the prognosis for patients today.
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Efforts today still generally focus on prolonging the overall quality of life and life expectancy of these patients instead of on finding a cure. Among these treatments are experimental and alternative therapies meant to relieve symptoms and improve a patient’s ability to lead a normal life.
Factors That Affect Life Expectancy
Malignant mesothelioma, like other cancers, occurs in four stages. Early detection has proven significant in leading to prolonged life expectancy.
- Stage 1: In its earliest stage, the cancer is localized, found only in the lining of the lung, the diaphragm, or the lining of the sac that covers the heart on the same side of the chest. Patients lucky enough to have caught mesothelioma at this stage may be good candidates for a biopsy to remove the tumors. In Stage 1, a full recovery is a possibility, as detection this early is a positive sign.
- Stage 2: This stage is considered advanced, as the cancer has spread to areas outside the point of origin. Mesothelioma at this stage may be found in the lining of the chest wall and in the lymph nodes on the same side of the chest. Additionally, as in Stage 1, the cancer may also be found in other areas such as the lining of the lungs, the diaphragm, or the sac that covers the heart on the same side of the chest. While surgery is still an option at this point, the projected life expectancy has decreased.
- Stage 3: Cases of Stage 3 mesothelioma are commonly diagnosed after a patient has noticed symptoms. If Stage 3 mesothelioma is the diagnosis, the cancer has spread to the chest wall, mediastinum, heart, lining of the peritoneum, and/or beyond the diaphragm. This is a grim discovery for patients, as this typically means the cancer has advanced to the other side of the chest, or even outside this area. Palliative (non-curative) surgeries may be considered at this point to ease the individuals’ symptoms and make them feel more comfortable.
- Stage 4: The final stage of mesothelioma occurs when the cancer has spread to distant locations in the body. Stage 4 may prove to be very painful for the patients, and palliative treatments are typically used to improve their comfort. However, life expectancy during this stage is drastically decreased.
Unlike other forms of cancer, symptoms of mesothelioma may not appear for decades after initial carcinogen exposure. This extended period of latency allows the cancer to develop and spread even before it is diagnosed. As a result of this late diagnosis, many patients can receive only palliative care to alleviate their pain rather than fight the onset of the disease itself. When diagnosed in the later stages, mesothelioma does not respond to treatments as well, and patients frequently do not possess the strength to undergo intensive surgery or therapies. This latency and subsequent pattern of treating symptoms rather than the disease itself accounts for the poor mesothelioma life expectancy.
Statistics show that the average age of mesothelioma patients is 60, with the disease affecting men over the age of 55 in 75% of all cases. Because many older patients can suffer from other illnesses that can affect the healing process, the immune systems of these individuals might not be able to fight this condition as well. Furthermore, younger patients are typically able to undergo more aggressive treatments, whereas older patients—who are generally the ones to develop mesothelioma—may not be able to handle the stress of serious treatments.
Since many cases of mesothelioma are connected to occupational asbestos exposure, males are the predominant gender affected by this cancer. While fewer women are affected and only infrequently involved in clinical trials, for reasons unknown, women seem to have a better prognosis for mesothelioma life expectancy.
Although all forms of mesothelioma are lethal, how much we know about each form of the disease impacts our ability to treat it. Pleural mesothelioma, which affects the tissue surrounding the lungs, is the most common form of the cancer. As a result, far more research has been done on this particular form of the disease, allowing doctors to develop and test more treatment options for it.
Other forms of the disease, including peritoneal and pericardial mesothelioma, remain far more difficult to treat because doctors do not have the opportunity to analyze the effectiveness of previous treatments as often. Furthermore, extremely rare forms of this disease, such as testicular mesothelioma, carry an even poorer prognosis and life expectancy because doctors have had so few opportunities to develop and test courses of treatment.
Malignant mesothelioma can be broken down into three histologic subtypes—epithelioid, sarcomatoid, and biphasic (mixed).
- Epithelioid: This variant is the most common form of the cancer, comprising around 60% of all mesotheliomas. Because it is most common, and scientists have had more opportunities to study the variant, patients with epithelioid mesothelioma have a much more promising life expectancy than those with sarcomatoid or biphasic.
- Sarcomatoid: This subtype consists of malignant spindle cells that mimic malignant mesenchymal tumors. This is the least common, yet most aggressive, form of mesothelioma, and treatment options are limited.
- Biphasic: A mix of epithelioid and sarcomatoid characteristics has been observed in this type of mesothelioma. Sadly, the average life expectancy for those diagnosed with biphasic mesothelioma is 6 months , the lowest of the three.
Smoking remains one of the biggest contributors to a short mesothelioma life expectancy. Although smoking does not directly cause mesothelioma, it can aggravate the condition and compromise a patient’s overall health. Particularly for patients who suffer from pleural mesothelioma, smoking can greatly decrease life expectancy in even otherwise healthy individuals while also affecting their quality of life. As the only controllable aspect affecting a patient’s life expectancy, the detrimental impact of this lifestyle choice deserves attention.
Prolonging Life Expectancy
Scientists and researchers are constantly studying and developing new ways to improve the quality of life and life expectancy in patients with all types of cancer, including mesothelioma. Clinical trials that test the efficacy of new drugs and treatment methods now occur frequently, giving patients hope. However, in the case of mesothelioma, the most important frontier will be in the field of diagnosis. As it is an asymptomatic disease, overcoming the latency period will go a long way in treatment and in increasing a patient’s life expectancy.
Despite these important factors, the mesothelioma life expectancy of sufferers can widely vary from patient to patient. While some patients may elect to undergo more intense treatments to kill off cancerous cells, limitations such as age, health, and cancer stage often make this impossible. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are the most common forms of treatment used today, although doctors hope to develop more advanced procedures to help in the treatment of this disease that carries such a poor life expectancy.
Other patient options in this cancer battle may include getting a second opinion, undergoing alternative treatments, taking part in a clinical trial, improving diet, or taking immune system enhancers.
A second medical opinion is always a wise choice , as mesothelioma and its stages are commonly misdiagnosed. Patients may be told they are dealing with Stage 3 mesothelioma by one doctor, only to seek a second opinion and learn they really have Stage 2 cancer. This misdiagnosis can make a big difference in treatment options and life expectancy.
While they are not medically recognized as cures for cancers, especially one as aggressive as mesothelioma, alternative treatments have been very popular among patients seeking help outside of traditional medicine. Numerous patients suffering from mesothelioma have claimed to benefit from options such as acupuncture, meditation, and other holistic medicines, to name just a few. While these therapies are symptom-reducing measures, not curative treatments, they have been receiving more attention lately as part of a multimodal approach to combating mesothelioma. With a sea of alternative therapies, including manual healing options and those concerning the mind, body, and spirit, patients are sure to find a method they are comfortable with that might just work for them.
Researchers are constantly recruiting volunteers for clinical trials to test new medicines and treatment approaches with the hope of one day finding a cure for mesothelioma. These trials allow patients to take advantage of new treatments that may extend survival. However, it remains important to remember that clinical trials do not come without risk.
Nutrition has a large impact on health in general. More importantly, if an individual is diagnosed with mesothelioma, it is important to factor in a healthy balance of beneficial foods high in antioxidants, minerals, and proteins. Eating at least five servings of fruits and veggies per day is recommended for those suffering from cancer. These foods are high in antioxidants and can boost the immune system, making the body healthier and more able to fight diseases.
Immune system enhancers also boost the immune system, making the body stronger. Treatments such as immunotherapy rejuvenate the immune system by seeking to repair aspects of the system that are not working up to par.
Other Life Expectancy Factors
While the above seem to be the main factors involved in predicting a patient’s life expectancy, other factors have been linked to longer survival times. These factors include the following:
- The ability to carry out normal daily tasks
- Lack of chest pain
- No significant weight loss
- Normal levels of a substance in the blood called LDH
- Normal red and white blood cell counts and blood platelet counts
Patients suffering from mesothelioma face a daunting challenge that may include fear and anxiety about what the future has to offer. While typical outcomes do follow a discouraging trend, all new discoveries and medicines, along with the medical professionals dedicated to finding a cure, make the future of mesothelioma diagnosis and treatment promising.