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Mesothelioma Treatment Information


What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma cancer of the lining of the lung or the lining of the abdomen is very different from a lung cancer. A typical lung cancer grows as a single identifiable nodule or mass which is anywhere from the size of a grape to the size of a baseball or larger when discovered. Because most lung cancer grows as a solitary defined mass, sometimes it can be cut out and followed up with chemotherapy or radiation which results in removing and killing off all of the lung cancer cells so that the cancer does not return.

So far, medical science has only very, very rarely been able to accomplish the same thing for persons with mesothelioma. The reasons for this is that mesothelioma grows on the lining of the lung (or the lining of the abdomen) as a diffuse multi-site tumor with tumor nodules being spread on a wide area of the pleura. Even when an individual is able to undergo surgery for removal of the entire pleura, lung on the side where the mesothelioma is located, and parts of the diaphragm, this almost never results in total removal of all of the cancer cells.

  • Picture of Mesothelioma

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    Facts About Mesothelioma

    Mesothelioma cancer does not act the same way in all people. In addition, a person's general state of health can have a lot to do with how they fare with the mesothelioma.

    There are different cell types of mesothelioma. Of the three cell types of mesothelioma, epithelial mesothelioma seems to grow the slowest. Sarcomatous or spindle-cell mesotheliomas seem to grow the fastest and biphasic mesotheliomas, which have characteristics of both epithelial and sarcomatous mesotheliomas seem to grow at a rate in between those two. Life expectancy from the date of diagnosis with mesothelioma to death varies from as short as several months to five years or in some cases longer. Age at time of diagnosis and overall general health make a big difference in how long a person lives.

    A few cases are reported of persons alive five and more years after diagnosis. More of these cases are occurring as time goes on and more is known about how to try and fight the cancer.


    Symptoms and Diagnosis

    Mesothelioma cancer is usually diagnosed after a person develops breathing difficulty, shortness of breath, chest discomfort, chest pain, and fatigue. When a person goes to the doctor for the first time with these symptoms, the doctor will usually take a chest x-ray and listen to the chest. Many times the chest x-ray will show a large area of white which indicates an accumulation of fluid. It is very common for mesothelioma to cause fluid to accumulate in the pleural space (a pleural effusion). The pleural space is the area between the outside lining of the lung and the inside lining of the chest wall. In a normal person, the pleura -- which lines the chest -- rubs up against the pleura which lines the chest wall. Each of these pleura are about as thick as a piece of saran wrap. There is a very tiny amount of fluid which coats each of the pleura so that when they rub up against one another as a person inhales and exhales, there will be no friction or irritation.

    When a mesothelioma develops, the pleura often becomes much thickened and studded with tumor nodules. Part of the body's response to the presence of the tumor is to weep fluid into the pleural space. As the fluid collects in the pleural space, it compresses the lung, making it harder and harder for a person to breathe and causing more and more shortness of breath. If the mesothelioma has produced fluid, it is usually possible for the doctor to drain the fluid out of the pleural space, (thoracentesis) giving immediate relief of the symptoms of the mesothelioma. When the fluid is drained, the lung is able to return to close to normal size and it becomes immediately easier for the person to breathe.

    A diagnosis of mesothelioma can sometimes be made just by looking at the cells which are contained in the pleural fluid. Sometimes the specimen of pleural fluid will contain some of the cancer cells which have sloughed off of the mesothelioma tumor on the lining of the lung. If some of these cells are found in the pleural fluid, then the pathologist can make a firm diagnosis of mesothelioma just by looking at the pleural fluid specimen. Many times, however, the pleural fluid does not contain cells of the mesothelioma cancer. This does not mean that the cancer is not there. Rather, it simply means that a better specimen needs to be obtained in order to determine whether or not a person has mesothelioma.

    If the specimen of pleural fluid does not provide any information as to the presence of mesothelioma, doctors will often move on to suggest that there be a pleural biopsy. Doctors can attempt to obtain a specimen of the pleura by doing a needle biopsy. The needle biopsy involves the insertion of a needle through the outside of the chest, between the ribs, through the chest wall and into the pleura in order to snag a small piece of tissue. If the needle is put into an area where the mesothelioma tumor is growing and is able to retrieve some of those cells in the small piece of tissue which is extracted, then the pathologist will be able to make a diagnosis of mesothelioma. Sometimes, a person with mesothelioma will have repeated needle biopsy and still there will be no diagnosis of mesothelioma by the pathologist. This can occur if the needle biopsy does not happen to take a specimen from the area where the cancer is growing. Another way for the surgeon to get a specimen of the pleura is to actually open the chest, separate the ribs and cut out a portion of the pleura for examination by the pathologist. If a person with shortness of breath, chest discomfort and pleural fluid has a mesothelioma, this type of operation almost always obtains a large enough specimen of pleural tissue for the pathologist to determine whether the person has a mesothelioma.

    The diagnosis of mesothelioma is not always straight forward. Only about 2,000-3,000 cases of mesothelioma occur every year. (By comparison, 2 million or more Americans die every year.) Most mesotheliomas occur in persons who live in urban areas where there is the greatest opportunity for exposure to asbestos. Thus, community hospital pathologists rarely have an opportunity to see a person with mesothelioma as part of their practice. Because of this, community hospital pathologists will often send tissue specimens suspected of being mesothelioma to other pathologists with an expertise in the diagnosis of mesothelioma for a second opinion. Most teaching hospitals in large metropolitan areas have pathologists on staff who are more than competent to diagnose mesothelioma. In addition, there are two other organizations to which community hospital pathologists can go for second opinions when it comes to the diagnosis of mesothelioma.


    Is the Diagnosis of Mesothelioma in My Case Correct?

    The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, located in Bethesda, Maryland, is available to community hospital pathologists seeking a second opinion from pathologists knowledgeable and experienced in the diagnosis of mesothelioma.

    In addition, there is an organization known as the U.S./Canadian Mesothelioma Reference Panel. This group, made up of pathologists from the United States and Canada, evaluates specimens when there is a question as to the diagnosis of mesothelioma. The chairman of the U.S./Canadian Reference Panel is Dr. Andrew Churg (Chairman, The University of British Columbia, 2211 Westbrook Mall, Vancouver, B.C. Canada V6T1W5 [604] 822-7775). The other members of the U.S./Canadian Mesothelioma Reference Panel are:

    • Philip Cagle, M.D.
    • Thomas Colby, M.D.
    • Joseph Corson, M.D.
    • Allen Gibbs, M.D.
    • Margaret Grimes, M.D.
    • Samuel Hammar, M.D.
    • Nelson Ordonez, M.D.
    • Victor Roggli, M.D.
    • William Travis, M.D.
    • Mark Wick, M.D.

    All of these doctors have demonstrated an expertise in the diagnosis of mesothelioma and are all good potential sources of second opinions as to the accuracy of a mesothelioma diagnosis.


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    Types of Treatment

    Persons with mesothelioma searching for help have a number of options. For some mesothelioma patients, surgical removal of the tumor, pleura, lung and portions of the diaphragm accompanied after surgery by chemotherapy, radiation therapy or both, may lead to prolongation of life. In some cases, surgery cannot or should not be performed. In these situations, oncologist (cancer doctors) may recommend either chemotherapy or radiation therapy or both.

    Removal of Fluid (Thoracentesis)

    The pleural fluid can be removed by inserting a needle through the chest wall and between the ribs into the area where the fluid is located. The fluid is drained out and the lung re-expands, thereby giving the patient immediate relief from the shortness of breath which is being experienced. It is not unusual in cases of mesothelioma for the fluid to re-occur. In some patients, the fluid can come back over and over and over again. Sometimes doctors will attempt to prevent the fluid from reoccurring by fusing the pleura on the outside of the lung with the pleura on the inside of the chest. By fusing the two together, the doctor is able to eliminate the space in which the fluid might otherwise collect. The two pleura can be fused together through the use of medication (tetracycline or doxycycline) or also by the use of surgical talc. Before a patient with mesothelioma or suspected of having mesothelioma goes through this procedure (known as pleurodesis), the patient should consult with the treating doctor to see if the use of this procedure will make it more difficult or impossible for the patient to consider surgical intervention later on, if that is one of the options the patient wishes to consider.

    Surgery

    Surgical intervention in mesothelioma cases is a serious and complicated operation. The surgeon may remove the lining of the lung (pleura), the lining of the peritoneum, portions of the lung, diaphragm, and other tissues as well. Careful investigation and consideration should be given before participating in such surgery. The credentials of the physician and treating hospital involved should be checked. Hospitals associated with medical schools in major urban areas will likely have surgeons with some experience in performing surgery for mesothelioma patients. In addition, there are a number of surgeons around the country who have been using surgical intervention in mesothelioma cases with some success. Success means that they have been able to extend the life of their patients and improve their quality of life. I do not think that there is any doctor anywhere who will say that surgery provides a cure for mesothelioma. Our mesothelioma clients have had experience with the following surgeons and hospitals.

    You may wish to contact one or more of the leading physicians in treating mesothelioma to try to get more information about possible surgical help for mesothelioma patients. Click here to go to our listing of Cancer Treatment Centers and Leading Physicians.

    Generally, I have found that the younger the person with mesothelioma, the more likely they are to have positive results from surgery. In addition, the better the overall health of the person at the time of the diagnosis of mesothelioma, the more likely that surgery might be of some assistance.

    Chemotherapy/Radiation

    Though the surgeon who conducts this operation may be able to cut out all of the mesothelioma tumor which can be seen, there is almost always microscopic mesothelioma cancer cells left behind. That is why an individual who undergoes this surgery typically goes through either chemotherapy or radiation therapy (or both) after the surgery in order to try and kill the microscopic cancer cells which have been left behind after the operation has taken place.

    Chemotherapy and/or radiation can kill many of the cancer cells which remain after the surgery is done but again, neither chemotherapy nor radiation has much of a chance of killing all of the mesothelioma cancer cells. Thus, mesothelioma almost always reoccurs even after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. What each of these treatments for mesothelioma may offer, in some cases, is an increase in life expectancy and an increase in quality of life for a period of time. Persons with mesothelioma should consult with doctors, family members, friends, clergy and other patients with mesothelioma, if at all possible, as they go about considering what kind of medical intervention to use, if any, in dealing with their diagnosis of mesothelioma.

    Radiation therapy is also used in treating malignant mesothelioma. It uses high-energy x-rays to try and kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may come from a machine outside the body (external radiation therapy) or from putting materials that produce radiation (radioisotopes) through thin plastic tubes in the area where the cancer cells are found (internal radiation therapy). Radiation therapy can be used both to try and kill or treat the cancer and also for pain control.

    Chemotherapy uses drugs (chemicals) to try and kill mesothelioma cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be taken by pill, by injection or by intravenous drip or pump. Chemotherapy is called a systemic treatment because the drug enters the bloodstream, travels through the body, and can kill mesothelioma cancer cells throughout the body. In mesothelioma, chemotherapy may be put directly into the chest (intra pleural chemotherapy).

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