Mesothelioma is a rare, aggressive form of asbestos cancer that is directly linked to asbestos exposure. Following a mesothelioma diagnosis, one of a patient’s first questions will typically concern the expected survival rate.
While medical researchers are making progress understanding this complex disease, the news is still not good. Generally, only 10 percent of mesothelioma patients live for five years or more following the cancer diagnosis. The average survival rate for a mesothelioma patient is four to 18 months after diagnosis.
Determining a mesothelioma patient’s life expectancy is influenced by several factors, including the stage of the cancer, the size of the tumor, the amount of fluid in the chest, the type of mesothelioma cells, whether the patient is a candidate for surgery, and the age and overall health of the patient.
As with any cancer, earlier diagnosis usually means more treatment options are available, and there is a higher success rate for shrinking or removing the tumors. If a patient is diagnosed with mesothelioma in Stage I, and has good overall health otherwise, he may be a good candidate for surgery. Following successful surgery and accompanying treatments, this patient’s survival rate may far exceed the average life expectancy for mesothelioma patients.
In later stages of the disease, patients may undergo various treatments including radiation and chemotherapy—the most common treatment options for later-stage mesothelioma. Patients with advanced cases of mesothelioma may opt not to undergo these forms of treatment at all, since they may feel that the side effects outweigh the benefits. They may still receive pain medication, or try alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage, nutritional supplements, yoga, and meditation to make them more comfortable. Patients have reported increased comfort and improved quality of life by using these alternative therapies.
Medical professionals have been unable to fully explain those mesothelioma patients whose life span has exceeded the expected survival rates for this disease. One key may be with the immune system, as most patients with increased survival rates participated in therapies designed to enhance their immune system. Some researchers are now focusing on immune system treatments to stabilize or even cure mesothelioma.
Why is Mesothelioma So Difficult to Diagnose?
Unlike other cancers, it can take 20 years or more before symptoms of mesothelioma begin to develop. This long latency period is just one of the factors that make this disease difficult both to detect and to treat. Age is another complicating factor. Since mesothelioma is typically diagnosed in persons over the age of 50, a patient’s overall health may not be good enough to allow for more aggressive treatment options.
Yet another complication is that mesothelioma symptoms often resemble the symptoms of other, more common respiratory diseases, such as bronchitis, influenza or emphysema. This leads some patients to delay seeing their doctor. Additionally, unless a doctor is alerted to the fact that the patient may have been exposed to asbestos in the past, he or she is likely to misdiagnose the disease. For all of these reasons, a patient’s mesothelioma is usually at an advanced stage by the time it is accurately diagnosed.
New Mesothelioma Treatment Options
In addition to the many conventional treatment options such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery that have long been used for treating mesothelioma, new drugs and treatment options have become available for managing the disease and improving a patient’s quality of life.
Equally encouraging is that researchers have isolated a mesothelioma gene marker that may enable doctors to diagnose the disease in its earlier stages, thus expanding a patient’s treatment options. Clinical trials offer another treatment option that many patients find valuable. Not only do the trials give them hope for a cure, they also provide patients the satisfaction of knowing that their participation is helping to advance mesothelioma research.
Finally, it’s important to remember that no two mesothelioma patients are alike, and every person will respond to treatment differently. While the statistical information regarding survival rates is discouraging for many mesothelioma cancer patients and their families, treatment options are improving.