Treatment for mesothelioma typically involves a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. In cases where standard treatments do not work, mesothelioma patients may also be able to try experimental treatments through clinical trials.
While no cure currently exists, mesothelioma patients can usually improve their prognosis through some form of treatment. Even in cases where improving lifespan is not viable, palliative care and alternative therapies often help reduce pain and suffering from symptoms for many individuals with mesothelioma.
Standard Mesothelioma Treatments
Important considerations in determining a mesothelioma treatment plan include the cancer stage, primary site affected and cell type. Treatment options also depend on whether the cancer is localized to the chest or has spread to the chest wall, diaphragm, or lymph nodes as well as your age and overall health. The three standard therapies used to treat mesothelioma include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
For patients with an early-stage mesothelioma diagnosis, surgery can be used to remove all or most of the tumor(s). Depending on the tumor location, surgery may include removing the mesothelial lining, one or more lymph nodes, or part or all of a lung or other organ.
Chemotherapy drugs work by attacking fast-growing cells, such as cancer cells. Often used in conjunction with surgery, chemotherapy can kill any remaining mesothelioma cells that the surgeon was unable to remove physically.
Through the use of targeted radiation, mesothelioma tumors can often be shrunk, making them easier to be removed through surgery. Depending on the tumor location, the radiation can be delivered using an external or an internal source.
In many cases, mesothelioma specialists will recommend a multimodal approach, which uses a combination of these three types of treatment. In various studies, multimodal treatment has been shown to be more effective than any of these individual treatments alone. For example, surgery combined with hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) has resulted in an increase in the life expectancy of peritoneal mesothelioma patients in recent years.
Multimodal treatment typically consists of a primary treatment used in combination with a neoadjuvant therapy (a “helper” treatment before the primary treatment) or an adjuvant treatment (a helper treatment after the primary treatment). For example, one multimodal approach might include:
- Neoadjuvant therapy: Radiation to shrink the tumor size
- Primary treatment: Surgery to remove the tumor
- Adjuvant therapy: Chemotherapy to kill any remaining cells
The treatment plan will be developed in conjunction with a mesothelioma specialist who can provide details about the specific therapy approach being taken.
Mesothelioma Doctors and Cancer Centers
In most cases, mesothelioma patients are treated by specialists who have experience with this particular form of cancer. These doctors are often thoracic oncologists (doctors who specialize in cancers of the chest), although some may specialize in other areas as well.
It is likely that if you are diagnosed with mesothelioma, you will be referred by your personal physician to a larger scale comprehensive cancer center. Most mesothelioma treatments are provided in cancer centers that provide care specifically for cancer patients – some of which are even designed specifically to treat mesothelioma. Cancer centers are available throughout the country, and many are linked to top medical universities.
Learn more about finding a mesothelioma expert near you. You should be prepared when you meet with your doctor by being ready to ask these questions.
Experimental Mesothelioma Treatments
In addition to more conventional therapies, researchers are constantly looking for new ways to treat mesothelioma patients. Some extremely promising emerging treatments have come out of clinical trials, in some cases extending the lives of mesothelioma patients by months or years.
ImmunotherapyBy kickstarting or boosting the immune system, it is possible to enhance the body’s own defenses against cancer.
Gene TherapySince cancer is caused by faults in cell DNA, one new way of fighting cancer is by fixing or overwriting problematic genes.
Photodynamic TherapyThrough the novel use of light and photosensitizing drugs, researchers have found a way to kill cancer cells with few side effects.
Clinical Trials and Emerging Treatments
While the treatments above account for the most promising experimental therapies for mesothelioma, ongoing clinical trials which look for new ways to fight mesothelioma, occur in cancer clinics all over the world. These trials may offer opportunities to patients who have not found effective treatment for their mesothelioma.
Researchers are investigating new targeted drugs and chemotherapies, as well as new protocols for giving the medications. Some trials focus on immunotherapy, which harnesses the power of the immune system to fight the disease. Other trials look at phototherapy, in which you are injected with a drug that bonds to cancer cells and is activated by high-intensity light. Additionally genetic therapies and novel radiotherapy techniques like tomotherapy are being evaluated.
We encourage you to learn more about participating in an active clinical trial.
Complementary Mesothelioma Treatments
Treatment for mesothelioma is usually provided by a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, or by an emerging treatment such as immunotherapy or gene therapy. However, complementary treatments can provide additional relief from symptoms or help patients during recovery after their primary treatment is delivered.
In cases where a cure for mesothelioma is not likely, such as with a Stage 4 diagnosis when the cancer has spread throughout the body, palliative care may still be an option. This type of care uses many of the techniques described above, but focuses on relieving the pain and suffering of the patient, rather than trying to eradicate the disease.
For example, one of the most debilitating symptoms of pleural mesotheliomais the build-up of fluid in the pleural space around the lungs. This collection of fluid makes it very difficult to breathe and also can cause severe pain. It greatly impacts the quality of life for the patient and can make it difficult to do every day tasks. The best way to relieve this discomfort is to have the fluid removed by means of a pleurocentesis.
In addition to or as an alternative to invasive procedures, medication to help with pain, difficulty breathing, and other symptoms that may be experienced is often prescribed. Click on the following link to learn more about pain management as well as its associated risks.
After the primary treatment, physical therapy is often required to help patients recover from the trauma of the treatment itself. The specific form of physical therapy a patient undergoes will depend on the specific type of treatment they receive, and how their body reacts to it. Common types of physical therapy include cardiovascular training, scar tissue healing, fatigue management, and strength training. While physical therapy will not necessarily help eradicate cancer or prevent recurrence, it can improve a mesothelioma survivor’s quality of life and overall health.
Many patients have found relief from physical and emotional symptoms through different forms of alternative treatment, including everything from massage and acupuncture to yoga and art therapy. The important thing is to consult your doctor before trying one of these alternative treatments, to make sure it will not interfere with your primary treatment plan.
Costs Associated with Mesothelioma Treatment
Mesothelioma treatment costs can be significant, and sometimes insurance companies may not cover the full costs of mesothelioma treatments, especially for clinical trials or experimental therapies.
The good news is that there may be other ways to pay for mesothelioma treatment, depending on your situation and how you were exposed to asbestos. Special programs and funds exist for veterans, certain industrial workers, those exposed during 9/11 attacks, and others.
Learn more about the financial assistance that is available to you if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma and exposed to asbestos.