New hope for mesothelioma patients: those are welcome words. Even better, a study published in the Annals of Thoracic Surgery in 2016 offers hope of longer survival times for patients with advanced pleural mesothelioma. The study found that a combination of pleurectomy-decortication surgery and other treatments significantly increased survival for mesothelioma patients with the epithelial pleural form of the disease.
What is Epithelial Pleural Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the linings around organs. Malignant mesothelioma tumors develop when tiny, asbestos fibers lodge in the body and cause irritation. It often takes many years, even many decades, for the cancer to develop. Many mesothelioma patients are in their 60s or 70s when they are diagnosed with the disease, even though were exposed to asbestos when they were much younger.
Pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of the disease. It affects the lining inside the chest and around the lungs. Because asbestos fibers are small, it’s easy to inhale them. Once in, these sharp fibers lodge in the lung. The body has a hard time dislodging them. Asbestos can linger in your body for years, eventually causing mesothelioma.
The most common form of pleural mesothelioma is epithelial pleural mesothelioma, where the tumor forms in the lining or sac that protects the lungs. The 2016 study looked just at epithelial pleural mesothelioma patients.
You might think of epithelial tissue as what holds our bodies together. Epithelium is a thin layer of tissue that covers us inside and out. Our skin is made up of epithelial cells. And, inside our bodies, each organ is covered and protected by a thin layer of epithelial tissue.
Epithelial pleural mesothelioma patients suffer from many of the most common mesothelioma symptoms: shortness of breath, chest pain, fluid on the lungs. Fluid can collect in the epithelium and lead to much of this discomfort.
Lung Sparing Surgery for Mesothelioma Patients
Previous studies have shown that surgery can improve the comfort of mesothelioma patients and sometimes extend survival, particularly for mesothelioma patients with early stages of the disease. One of the most common procedures, an extrapleural pnuemonectomy, removes the lung affected by the tumor, as well as much of the surrounding tissue. This surgery is recommended for patients whose health is basically good, other than being mesothelioma patients, because it is hard on the body.
One big drawback of extrapleural pneumonectomy: this surgery is most effective for early stage mesothelioma patients. The 2016 study showed dramatically increased survival rates for advanced epithelial pleural mesothelioma patients with a procedure that leaves both lungs intact.
Pleurectomy-decortication is also known as lung sparing surgery. This two-part operation removes as much as possible of the mesothelioma tumor without removing either lung. Retaining both lungs while removing the source of fluid buildup and pressure improves the quality of life for many patients after surgery.
The entire surgery takes several hours to complete. The first part is the pleurectomy. This is the removal of the epithelial lining around the lungs, also known as the pleura. During the second part of the surgery, decortication, surgeons look for and remove any remaining signs of the mesothelioma tumor within the chest cavity.
Both types of surgery increase survival time for mesothelioma patients. Extrapleural pneumonectomy was the first surgery developed to treat mesothelioma, but lung sparing surgery is gaining in popularity among surgeons who treat mesothelioma patients. The encouraging results of this study may boost this trend.
Intraoperative Photodynamic Therapy for Mesothelioma Patients
In the 2016 study, all the patients received intraoperative photodynamic therapy or PDT. This treatment kills cancer cells by exposing them to light. Other studies have suggested that this treatment, in combination with surgery, can help mesothelioma patients live longer. Some researchers believe that PDT may help the body’s own immune system fight back against the cancer cells.
In addition, most of the patients in the 2016 study were given chemotherapy after surgery.
Study Shows Remarkable Survival Rate for Mesothelioma Patients
Though a few mesothelioma patients have survived for 10 years or more after diagnosis, more than half pass away within one year. Typically, only 8% survive five years or more.
That’s what makes this new study so encouraging. It looked at 73 patients with advanced epithelial pleural mesothelioma who received the pleurectomy-decortication surgery, PDT, and (in most cases), chemotherapy. The average survival rate was three years among the patients in the study.
There were 19 people in the study whose cancer had not spread to their lymph nodes. For these mesothelioma patients, the treatment was even more effective. Their median survival rate was more than seven years – much longer than the average mesothelioma patient.
For all the mesothelioma patients in the study, the cancer did return, most commonly in one year after the surgery. However, because of this innovative treatment, these patients were able to survive mesothelioma for much longer than the average patient.While the numbers in this initial study are small, it provides encouraging news for the future treatment of mesothelioma patients. The huge increase in survival for patients whose mesothelioma had not spread to their lymph nodes suggests that this treatment might be effective for those with earlier stages of the cancer as well.
Catching Mesothelioma Early
Mesothelioma patients increase their chances of surviving longer when they get treatment at an earlier stage of the cancer. If you were exposed to asbestos, get regular physicals from your doctor and watch out for the signs of mesothelioma. If someone close to you worked around asbestos, you could also be at risk of mesothelioma. There have been a number of cases where wives inhaled asbestos fibers while washing their husband’s work clothes and then developed mesothelioma later in life. Children have been exposed to take home asbestos by playing with their father who is still wearing his work clothing after a long day on the job.
An unexplained, persistent cough, difficulty breathing, and chest pain are all possible symptoms of this rare cancer. Your vigilance and an early diagnosis might help you spend more precious years with your family.
No matter what stage your mesothelioma cancer, medical science is making remarkable breakthroughs that bring hope of better outcomes for mesothelioma patients.