Knowing what to expect when you or a loved one must deal with a serious and potentially deadly disease can help you cope with that challenge. For those facing malignant Mesothelioma, new information is abundant, and it is comforting to know that new therapies to combat this disease are in constant development.

Malignant Mesothelioma

Many people and their families today are just learning they have a life-threatening disease called malignant Mesothelioma. This disease is caused primarily by exposure to asbestos materials that these people handled or produced decades ago. Unfortunately, with this form of cancer, it usually is a very long time before it is diagnosed, and damage from it is life-threatening. Once diagnosed with this type of cancer, it is natural to wonder about life expectancy chances and how new therapies might increase those numbers.

Malignant Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer caused primarily by exposure to asbestos minerals and the inhalation or ingestion of the minute particles of those minerals that were released into the air. Those particles enter the body and become lodged in the thin linings of internal organs that are known as the mesothelium. Once these fibers are in the mesothelium, they cause inflammation and pain. Swelling or lumps also develop, which are some of the first symptoms people may notice.

Most cases of malignant Mesothelioma are found in the linings of the lungs or abdomen, but also can invade the linings of the heart or testicles. Where the cancer is found relates to the name of a particular type of Mesothelioma. There are three primary types:

  • Lungs – Pleura, or Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma
  • Abdomen – Peritoneum, or Malignant Peritoneal Mesothelioma
  • Heart – Pericardium, or Malignant Pericardium Mesothelioma

The symptoms of Mesothelioma are typical of many cancers. Chest pain, swelling or lumps under the skin, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, cough, and difficulty swallowing all may indicate a type of cancer. It is important to get medical advice quickly to determine the type of cancer and to begin a course of treatment. It also is important to remember than not only are those who had direct contact with asbestos materials at high risk for this disease, so are any family members or others who may have had secondary exposure to asbestos. Workers can carry the fibrous particles home to others on clothing or hair.

Life Expectancy

The prognosis for Mesothelioma is considered poor, due to many related factors. The worst aspect of this disease most likely is the length of time between exposure to the hazardous materials and development of symptoms. This is normally between 30 and 50 years time. Once the symptoms are detected, the cancerous cells have taken hold and even may have spread to other organ tissues in the body.

Life expectancy for those suffering from Mesothelioma varies, but generally is less than 5 years. Several factors enter into life expectancy estimates, including age, sex and genetic history. Since it takes so long to be discovered after time of exposure to asbestos materials, many people with Mesothelioma are already at an advanced age, often 65 years or older. Their normal life expectancy is around 78 years, total. Women tend to survive longer than men who have contracted Mesothelioma. There may also be genetic factors in a family history that contribute to this problem and susceptibility to Mesothelioma.

Many studies were done on people who died from Mesothelioma between 1999 and 2013. Of that group, median life expectancy varied from 12 to 21 months. The 5-year survival rate was a mere 5% to 10%. Again, many of those afflicted with this type of cancer were already age 65. On the other side of things, there have been many people who have survived 10 years or more after being diagnosed with Mesothelioma.

The stage of the cancer and the patient age contribute to survival rates for Mesothelioma. According to recent statistics from the National Cancer Institute, the 5-year survival rates are best for patients 45 years old or younger (44.2 percent) and worst for those over age 65 (5.1 percent).

Mesothelioma Treatments

Three primary treatments have been offered to Mesothelioma patients. These are: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Surgery offers the best prospects for recovery, because the cancerous tissues may be completely removed from the body. If, however, cells have spread or the cancer is in a location where surgery is not an option, chemotherapy or radiation may be used instead.

Tests used for making a diagnosis may include any of the following: X-ray, PET or CT scan, MRI, blood tests and biopsies. Because the symptoms are so close to those of other types of cancer, consultation with a Mesothelioma specialist is advised. Treatments are costly, but there are resources for help with medical expenses, including a Mesothelioma trust fund and grants.

New Developments to Extend Life Expectancy

Life expectancy may be lengthened due to new developments in the treatment of malignant Mesothelioma. Current life expectancy estimates are based on older cases, but new treatments and new chemotherapy drugs are continually being developed that could increase those estimates for current patients.

Some of the newest developments are either now available or being tested in clinical trials. Some work with the immune system while others are designed to directly attack cancer cells. These include:

  • Photodynamic Therapy (PDT) – a light-activated drug is injected into a vein, spreading throughout the body. It tends to collect in cancerous cells. When doctors use a special light at the end of a tube placed into the chest, it causes a chemical change in that drug. When activated, the drug kills the cancer cells.
  • Targeted Drugs – A new way to combat cancer when regular chemo drugs do not work. They may have less severe side effects.
  • Gene Therapy – New genes are added to cancer cells, making them easier to kill. These genes work with the immune system attacking cancer cells.
  • Immunotherapy – Vaccines work with the immune system to react to tumor cells. Available in clinical trials.
  • Virus Therapies – These are put into the pleural space to infect and kill cancer cells or to cause the immune system to attack them. Available in clinical trials.

By working with a Mesothelioma specialist, patients have access to the latest information, developments and treatments available. They can help find available clinical trials and also counsel patients about management of this disease and stress factors like depression and anxiety. Clinical trials are on-going and offer the chance to be one of the first to benefit from those new treatments. As with all forms of cancer, early diagnosis and treatment offers the best opportunity to increase life expectancy.