No cancer diagnosis is the same as another and, hence, treatment options for patients can be as different as night and day. For mesothelioma patients, however, the options are not quite as varied as they are for other more common cancers, like breast and lung cancer. But as scientists are able to perform more research into treatments for this fairly rare cancer, more options will become available. For now, there are a handful of options that remain fairly standard.
Not everyone who has mesothelioma is a candidate for surgery, but if the patient is in good overall health and is thought to have a good chance of surviving serious mesothelioma-related surgery, than it’s often the first recommended course of treatment. It is an especially successful option if the cancer has not metastasized (spread to other parts of the body).
Surgery that may potentially cure the mesothelioma patient usually involves the removal of the cancerous lung (pneumonectomy) and, in some cases, the lining around it as well as the diaphragm and lymph nodes (extrapleural pneumonectomy). These are the areas affected by the most common pleural form of mesothelioma. Both procedures are very serious and involve a lengthy recovery period, so they are only recommended when the oncologist is certain that it is in the absolute best interest of the patient and when the disease is in its early stages. However, because meso is often not diagnosed until it has progressed beyond Stage 1 or 2, these surgeries are often not an option.
Other palliative surgical procedures – those that serve to make the patient more comfortable – are also available but do not offer the possibility of a cure. They may involve options like draining fluid from the pleural space, which makes it easier for the patient to breathe and, hence, more comfortable.
For decades, chemotherapy has generally been the first course of treatment for individuals diagnosed with asbestos-caused cancer where surgery is not an option.
About 10 years ago, Eli Lilly introduced what is thus far the only FDA-approved drug specifically designed to treat malignant pleural mesothelioma. That drug, Alimta ©, is used along with a platinum-based chemo drug, usually cisplatin, to treat the disease and has indeed shown to be the most effective on the market. Alimta can also be used for maintenance. However, it hasn’t succeeded in prolonging the patient’s life for more than an extra few months when compared to other treatments.1
Of course, researchers hope to continue to develop drugs that will someday offer a better prognosis for mesothelioma patients.
Radiation therapy does NOT provide a cure for mesothelioma but is generally used to make the patient more comfortable. Most specifically, it is employed to relieve pain.
Types of radiation include external beam (the most common), interoperative radiation (the beams are applied during surgery), and brachytherapy, which involves implanting tiny radioactive seeds into the affected area. The latter is still being tested for use in treating mesothelioma though it has been successfully used in treating other forms of lung-related cancer.
Often, oncologists will suggest a combination of several forms of therapy for the treatment of mesothelioma. For example, a patient who is indeed a candidate for surgery may require some follow-up radiation therapy. Other patients may receive a combination of chemo and radiation.
Remember, a thorough examination and testing done by a certified oncologist and other medical team members will result in the best recommended form of treatment for the patient. However, the patient and his/her caregivers should never hesitate to ask questions about the treatment or to ask for a change should serious problems arise.