Mesothelioma is a relatively rare cancer with nearly 3,000 new cases reported in the United States each year, according to the National Cancer Institute. The life expectancy of patients diagnosed with mesothelioma varies from months to a few years depending on the type of mesothelioma and how advanced the cancer is when found. This prognosis is often depressing to the patients and their families.
Asbestos cancer is usually associated with workplace exposure to asbestos particles that are inhaled or ingested. This cancer is found most often among workers at companies that manufactured asbestos-containing products or workers in certain trades or industries that handled asbestos.
The forms of the disease include: pleural, peritoneal, and pericardial. The name identifies where it occurs in the body.
- Pleural, the most common form affecting about two-thirds of patients, occurs in the lining of the lungs and the walls of the chest cavity. Shortness of breath and pain in the chest due to buildup of fluid around the lungs are often symptoms of pleural mesothelioma.
- Peritoneal is a cancer involving the tissue lining the abdomen. It represents 20 to 30 percent of cases. Symptoms include weight loss, abdominal pain and buildup of fluid in the abdomen.
- Pericardial, which occurs in the lining around the heart, is extremely rare, representing less than 1 percent of cases.
A highly lethal disease, is often difficult to diagnose because it may not appear until 30 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos and its symptoms, such as shortness of breath or abdominal pain, are similar to those of a number of other more common illnesses.
For those reasons, doctors often do not definitively make a diagnosis of mesothelioma until the disease has reached an advanced stage, thereby making life expectancy short. At this point the patients’ treatment options are few, and no cures are available. A biopsy of tissue is required for a confirmed diagnosis.
Median Survival Rate
The median survival rate for malignant mesothelioma is 6 months to 18 months, according to the American Thoracic Society.
- A study of asbestos workers in the United States and Canada found that among 141 cases of pleural mesothelioma, 35 percent of the patients died within six months, 64 percent within a year and 94 percent within 24 months of the start of symptoms. The median survival was 10 months.
- Among 244 people with peritoneal mesothelioma, 54 percent died within six months, 88 percent within 12 months and 98 percent within 24 months. The median survival was significantly shorter: four months.
The British Thoracic Society says the median survival rate varies from 8 to 14 months depending on the study and type of mesothelioma. Still, the disease is progressive and the five-year survival rate and prognosis are very poor.
There isn’t a lot of evidence that surgical options to remove the diseased tissue alone enhances patients’ survival, the American Thoracic Society says. To be effective, the doctors must remove the membrane lining the lungs (in stage I) and the lung itself in more advanced cases; and often the lining of the abdomen and lining around the heart and portion of the chest wall. Even after such radical surgery, only about 11 percent of mesothelioma patients survive more than five years.
Patients may have a more favorable prognosis if the disease is diagnosed within six months of the onset of symptoms, still at stage I, where cancer cells remain contained within the lining of the abdomen, and no chest pain is evident, the American Thoracic Society says.
Because mesothelioma is hard to control, the National Cancer Institute is sponsoring research trials designed to find new treatments and better ways to use current treatment. In selected patients with less advanced cases of mesothelioma, doctors have achieved some improved survival rates by aggressive treatment, combining surgery to remove diseased tissue followed by chemotherapy and radiation. Although, none of these treatment options are cures for the cancer.
A new study by British researchers identifying a protein in pleural fluid that may be a reliable indicator of mesothelioma also offers hope of progress in achieving early detection of the disease. That could allow doctors an opportunity to treat patients while their disease is still in its early stages.