Victoria, Australia—Mesothelioma sufferers in Australia and around the globe may soon see an increased life expectancy, thanks to a breakthrough in the treatment of this aggressive asbestos cancer. Dr. Malcom Feigen, a radiation oncologist at the Austin Health Centre in Victoria, has been deeply involved with developing new techniques for mesothelioma for the past seven years. Recently, he has been part of a team that discovered a new radiation technique that shows great promise for patients with mesothelioma. The treatment consists of surgery in most cases, followed by high doses of radiotherapy; according to Feigen, it has improved patients’ life expectancy by an average of two years. Currently, the average life expectancy after a mesothelioma diagnosis is 18 months. “We’ve been very impressed that in most cases there’s a considerable improvement in the activity of the tumor masses that we’ve given high doses of radiotherapy,” said Feigen.
He also explained that the results of the treatment were tested by doing PET scans both before and after the radiotherapy, then comparing the results. Additionally, the patients involved in the treatment study have experienced no major side effects, and some have even shown long-term benefits. A cancer which affects the membranous lining of the chest cavity, mesothelioma is linked to asbestos exposure. It is an unusual form of cancer which almost always takes many years to be diagnosed, due to its long latency period—that is, it can remain silent and asymptomatic within the body even while the cancer itself is progressing rapidly. This means that a person can contract mesothelioma but not be aware of it for up to 50 years. When the mesothelioma is eventually diagnosed, it’s usually advanced to Stage III or Stage IV, making treatment more difficult and greatly diminishing the prognosis. Mesothelioma is a painful cancer, in which breathing may be extremely impaired. Some 700 Australians are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year. In the United States, the number of new mesothelioma cases each year stands at 3,000. The only established cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos, the carcinogenic building material which was so widely used in the 20th century. Feigen will present his findings to an Australian oncology conference next week.