Mesothelioma Awareness – Part 3: Why Treating Mesothelioma Is So Hard

Awareness // September 14, 2016

Mesothelioma Awareness Day is on September 26, 2016, and throughout the entire month, the Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center is posting a series of articles on a variety of issues related to the disease. In previous posts, we’ve written about the dangers of asbestos exposure and how mesothelioma is diagnosed. Today, we are talking about why mesothelioma is such a difficult disease to treat.

When it comes to treating mesothelioma, there is the conventional approach – which typically includes a multimodal plan involving surgery, chemotherapy, and possibly radiation – and then there are experimental approaches, such as immunotherapy, gene therapy, cryotherapy, and even a brand new technique that uses gold and lasers! Given so many different forms of mesothelioma therapy, it is still perhaps a shock to some people that this form of cancer is actually very difficult to treat effectively.

Stage Determines Treatment Options

One of the biggest reasons that mesothelioma is hard to treat is that most of the time it is caught too late to perform surgery effectively. According to research, much more than half of cases are diagnosed at Stage 3 or Stage 4, after the disease has already begun to spread. While there are some treatment options available at these stages, in most cases they are limited to palliative care, which focuses on reducing pain and discomfort, rather than trying to cure the cancer outright.

When caught in an earlier stage (Stage 1 or Stage 2), there are generally more treatment options available. This has to do in part with the fact that it is generally easier to remove all of the cancerous cells if the disease can be caught before it spreads to the lymph nodes or other areas of the body. Once that spreading (metastasis) begins, it can be extremely difficult to make sure that all of the cancer cells are removed or killed.

Another reason why it is easier to treat mesothelioma in early stages is that, in most cases, the disease has not yet taken a heavy physical toll on the patient. As symptoms become more intense, they can lead to other medical or physical problems, which can reduce the effectiveness of treatments or make certain treatments unavailable. However, patients in good general health can undergo more intensive treatments with less of a risk.

Treatment Can Differ Drastically by Location

Another major factor in why treating mesothelioma can be difficult is that the treatments differ quite a bit based on the original location of the tumor(s). The two primary types of mesothelioma are determined by where they develop – the lining of the lungs (pleura) or the lining of the abdomen (peritoneum).

For pleural mesothelioma, there are several potential surgeries that a person could undergo, including:

  • Pleurectomy/Decortication (P/D), which removes the pleura, as well as some nearby lung tissue
  • Pneumonectomy, which removes an entire lung
  • Extrapleural Pneumonectomy, which removes an entirely lung, plus a portion of the surrounding tissue including part of the diaphragm and even the outer lining of the heart

For peritoneal mesothelioma, surgery can involve not only the removal of the peritoneum, but also potentially removal of other organs that have been affected by the cancer. There may also be a heated chemotherapy rinse known as hyperthermic peritoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC), which is a relatively new, and somewhat uncommon, procedure that has shown to be a highly effective treatment for peritoneal mesothelioma.

Each of these types of surgery involve different levels of difficulty and have varying rates of survival. The ability to undergo such traumatic surgeries depends highly on the patient’s overall health.

Taking Care of Stress and Worry

There are many medical studies that have been done about the impacts of stress on medical treatment. In fact, a number of studies have shown that stress-reducing activities such as meditation, massage, yoga, and other alternative treatments can significantly enhance the overall benefits and effectiveness of their medical treatments.

However, meditation and stretching can only go so far. In many cases, it is important to take care of the source of your worries, to help make sure they simply come back later. Doing this entails understanding the root of whatever is stressing you out, and then making a plan to overcome it.

Of course, when dealing with a cancer diagnosis, handling stressful issues can feel beyond your own capabilities. If that is the case, it is important to lean on your community of family, friends, and other caregivers who can offer help and take care of things you might not be able to. You may also need to contact experts who can provide financial, legal, and other assistance that you may need.

In the next part of our series, we will talk some more about ways in which the mesothelioma community can help those who have been diagnosed, as well as their families.