Mesothelioma is an aggressive, difficult cancer. Caused by exposure to asbestos it takes decades to develop but then spreads rapidly, making treatment a challenge. Treatment options depend on each individual patient and the stage of the cancer. Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and also some newer, more innovative treatment strategies are usually considered.
What is Mesothelioma?
This is a type of cancer that results from repeated exposure to asbestos, a material used in a variety of industries. It is not used as much today, as regulations have limited asbestos use, but people who worked with it decades ago still suffer from the harm it caused.
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral, and when disturbed the fibers dislodge and can be inhaled or ingested if workers are not wearing appropriate safety gear. In the body the fibers may trigger damage to cells in mesothelial tissue, the tissue surrounding most organs.
Mesothelioma around the lungs is most common and is called the pleural type. Peritoneal mesothelioma occurs when the cancer develops in the tissue of the abdomen, and pericardial refers to cancer of the tissue around the heart. The latter is very rare.
Multimodal Treatments for Mesothelioma
The traditional way to treat mesothelioma is with a multimodal approach, some combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Surgery is often used to reduce the size and number of tumors.
Chemotherapy and radiation can be used to shrink tumors in advance of surgery or to eliminate some of the remaining cancer cells after a surgical procedure.
The most effective results from treatment come from using more than one therapy when possible. Each type of treatment benefits and enhances the other. Some patients may receive all three, while others get just two. Chemotherapy is the type of treatment most often used in mesothelioma patients.
Mesothelioma is different from many other types of cancers, which places limitations on treatment.
Most people are diagnosed in later stages, when the cancer has spread extensively or even metastasized. In these patients, who are often very sick, surgery may not be an option. Another limitation to surgery is that mesothelioma grows as multiple small tumors, rather than a few large ones.
This makes surgical removal of tumors challenging.
It is rare that mesothelioma can be cured or that remission can be achieved with treatment. One of the best treatments to cure it is a type of aggressive surgery known as an extrapleural pneumonectomy. This involves removing a lot of tissue, including an entire lung. Most patients are too sick to be eligible for this procedure.
Furthermore, mesothelioma treatment can be very expensive, leading victims and families to feel overwhelmed. Typically, people were exposed to asbestos due to the neglect of asbestos product companies. Mesothelioma lawsuits can help victims recover money for treatment and other expenses.
Innovative Treatments and Mesothelioma in Clinical Trials
Patients with an aggressive, terminal cancer like mesothelioma are often good candidates for newer treatments and experimental treatments being tested in clinical trials. Some of the more innovative therapies mesothelioma patients may benefit from include:
Immunotherapy. These therapies harness the patient’s immune system in various ways to help it recognize, attack, and kill cancer cells.
Gene therapy. Manipulating the DNA and genes of cancer cells or the cells of a patient’s immune system may help destroy more of the tumors.
Phototherapy. Using light-activated chemotherapy drugs, doctors can better target and kill mesothelioma cells. The treatment allows the drugs to accumulate in cancer cells, and then light is used to activate them.
Alternative and complementary treatments. Many mesothelioma patients benefit from alternative therapies like massage, acupuncture, and herbal medicine. These are not designed to replace other treatments but to complement them and provide some relief from symptoms and side effects.
Treatment for mesothelioma is challenging, but researchers in clinical trials are trying to provide more options. Rather than curing this cancer, the goal is shifting to managing it as a chronic illness. With this goal in mind people are living longer with mesothelioma.