Mesothelioma, the aggressive lung cancer linked to asbestos exposure, is a dangerous disease that is nearly always fatal. Its diagnosis is difficult because the symptoms of mesothelioma are very similar to other diseases, such as other types of lung cancer. It is only after a biopsy that the presence of mesothelioma in the lungs can be legitimately confirmed.
While mesothelioma frequently results in a death after less than a year, there are some notable exceptions who have beat the mesothelioma diagnosis. Writer Stephen Jay Gould, for example, who was an influential science writer, lived for more than 20 years after his original mesothelioma diagnosis. He wrote a well-known essay, “The Median Isn’t The Message,” for Discover magazine in 1985, in which he argues that “[a]ttitude clearly matters in fighting cancer.” For more than 20 years, his essay has been a battle-cry for everyone fighting mesothelioma.
Advances in Technology for Mesothelioma Treatment
Since Gould’s 1982 diagnosis, technology has greatly improved. When it comes to fighting mesothelioma, new treatments are being developed all the time. This article will include a closer look at several traditional and new treatments and what they might mean for people with a mesothelioma diagnosis.
The Three Most Common Treatments
The basic treatment of mesothelioma has not changed much in the past few decades. Typical treatment options recommended by oncologists include the following three:
The surgery option is common to almost all forms of cancer. As with other operations aimed at eliminating cancer, mesothelioma surgeries focus on removing the tissues in which the cancer has spread.
Palliative surgery is the type of surgery done for patients whose diagnosis is particularly dire. This surgery is not designed to cure the patient but simply to ease the patient’s pain.
Curative surgery, on the other hand, is performed with the hope that the patient may recover from the mesothelioma cancer. Curative surgery can be a good option for patients who are in otherwise good health and have a tumor that is localized to a specific region of the lung(s).
Unfortunately for people with a mesothelioma diagnosis, the mesothelioma cancer tends not to stay localized but spreads to other parts of the lungs and chest. Although curative surgery generally increases survival rates, surgery is not as effective a course of treatment as it can be for patients with other types of cancer.
Radiation is one type of treatment that has definitely improved as cancer-fighting technology has advanced. The machines that deliver the radiation that is designed to eliminate the cancer cells are now controlled by complex computers. The newest computer-driven radiation machines are known as Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy machines, or IMRTs. IMRTs minimize the damage that radiation does to neighboring, non-cancerous cells by focusing the radiation beam to aim specifically at the cancer.
Another radiation technology used to fight mesothelioma is brachytherapy. In brachytherapy, radiation-producing chemicals are injected into the cancer site. This type of radiation therapy is used much more rarely in the treatment of mesothelioma.
Chemotherapy is the third type of common cancer treatment that is used against mesothelioma. Patients undergoing chemotherapy ingest or are injected with powerful chemicals that kill the cancerous cells. Chemotherapy is notorious for its painful side-effects, including vomiting, hair loss, fatigue and weight loss.
Chemotherapy drugs for mesothelioma have definitely improved over the years. New drugs are being developed all the time, each increasing life expectancy for mesothelioma patients just a little bit more. While no drug has yet been developed that completely cures mesothelioma, advances in technology is definitely helping doctors make progress in fighting the disease.
Although none of the three traditional treatments function very well to treat mesothelioma in isolation, combining multiple treatments can often greatly extend the lifespan of the patient. This type of treatment is called “multimodality” because it relies upon some combination of the treatments mentioned above. As researchers have learned more about mesothelioma treatment, they have discovered that multimodality treatment is generally the best option when it comes to beating the disease.
In one study from 1999, for instance, researchers found that patients who underwent an initial surgery removing as much cancer as possible and were then treated with chemotherapy and radiation could increase their life expectancy by as much as 14 years.
New Technology and Experimental Treatments for Mesothelioma
Besides the three traditional options of surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, researchers have many new ideas regarding mesothelioma that advances in technology have made possible.
Gene therapy is one example of a new mesothelioma treatment with some potential for success. In gene therapy, doctors introduce new genes into the body that alter the genetic makeup of the cancer and make the cancer cells more susceptible to chemotherapy drugs. This “trojan horse” method tricks the cancer into producing only cells that can easily be killed by chemotherapy.
Another interesting mesothelioma therapy on the horizon is known as immunotherapy. In this treatment course, doctors encourage the patient’s immune system itself to fight back against the disease. Mesothelioma immunotherapy is a type of “passive” immunotherapy in which doctors give patients certain proteins to stimulate the immune system. This type of therapy is still in the clinical trial stage.
A third type of experimental treatment that might eventually become standard practice in the treatment of mesothelioma is photodynamic therapy, or PDT. PDT relies upon light and photosensitizing drugs to kill cancer cells. Because light cannot penetrate the body as deeply as radiation can, some scientists feel that PDT is perfect for skin cancers and lung cancer. Although PDT so far has not proven itself superior to other types of multimodality approaches, PDT is definitely better in terms of producing fewer side-effects.
Supplements and Alternative Therapy
James Rhio O’Connor was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2001 and given 6 months to live. Instead, he lived until 2009. He wrote a book to inspire others called They Said Months, I Chose Years: A Mesothelioma Survivor’s Story. In his books, he cites the supplements he took and dietary changes he made as a key part of his survival. In fact, Mr. O’Connor was eventually taking as many as 100 supplements each day.
Supplementation and dietary approaches are just two of a vast and growing number of alternative therapies patients with mesothelioma are trying. From reiki and herbal supplementation to music therapy and meditation, mesothelioma patients are experimenting with a number of alternative therapies as a way of enhancing their conventional treatment course.
Conclusion: A Mesothelioma Diagnosis Is Not Hopeless
Thanks to a combination of improving technologies and the indomitable force of the human spirit, people who are diagnosed with mesothelioma today need not lose hope. Doctors have improved and continue to improve treatment for mesothelioma, and patients are learning that lifestyle changes and alternative therapies can also be helpful. Furthermore, as Stephen Jay Gould stated so accurately, attitude matters even when facing a disease as notoriously dangerous as mesothelioma.