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Mesothelioma Life Expectancy

Factors Effecting Mesothelioma Life Expectancy

Because malignant mesothelioma is an incurable and invariably fatal disease, the first question that newly diagnosed patients often ask is “how long do I have?” While it may seem morbid to dwell on the end of life, preparing for death and what happens after is a very important part of a mesothelioma patient’s journey. Many patients enjoy the sense of security that preplanning gives them and taking the burden from surviving family members often gives comfort. However, seeing mesothelioma as a death sentence is not helpful. Many factors can affect how long patients live with the disease. While the average life span of a pleural mesothelioma patient is just over 1 year, many have lived far longer. And similarly, peritoneal mesothelioma patients have been known to live for five or even ten years after their diagnosis.

Understanding the factors that affect life expectancy and general prognosis is important when a patient finally decides to wrap their mind around this type of asbestos cancer. Multiple studies have noted the effect of a positive attitude and outlook in bettering a patient’s remaining time and lessening the painful symptoms of the disease and side effects of the aggressive treatments many patients choose to undergo.  The Center for Disease Control created the chart at the right to show years of potential life lost of patients diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma between 1999 - 2007.

Type of Mesothelioma

One of the most important factors in assessing the possible life span of a mesothelioma patient is the type of mesothelioma with which they’ve been diagnosed. Pleural mesothelioma (because it grows in and around the lungs and chest cavity – where vital organs reside) is often viewed as the most dangerous form of the disease. Tumor growth, fluid retention, and pressure on internal organs often mean that patients with this type of disease decline rapidly. Pleural mesothelioma is often harder to treat as well. Surgical procedures are often hampered by the location of tumors and chemotherapy and radiation can easily damage surrounding tissues.

Peritoneal mesothelioma occurs in the abdomen. While it too is an aggressive form of cancer and can attack various internal organs including kidneys, the liver, sex organs, and even the digestive system, it is generally seen as the lesser of two evils. This is because peritoneal mesothelioma is, in some instances, easier to treat. Surgeons can be more aggressive with tissue removal procedures and targeted treatments such as intraperitoneal chemotherapy can hammer on the cancer while leaving other sensitive tissues fairly well intact.

Histological Type of Cancer

Another factor that plays an important part in determining expected life span is the histological type of the mesothelioma with which a patient is diagnosed. There are three histological types of this disease:

These types of disease are really defined by which cells the mesothelioma cells resemble. Epithelial mesothelioma involves epithelial cells; sarcomatoid cancer involves cells resembling the sarcoma (connective tissues in the body); biphasic involves both types of cells.

Epithelial mesothelioma is the most common. Scientists estimate that somewhere around 70% of all mesothelioma case worldwide. However, this type of the disease is also the most treatable. That’s because these types of cells more readily accept chemotherapy drugs and respond better to radiation.

Sarcomatoid mesothelioma is the most lethal but is also the least common. Not only do these types of tumors grow quickly, they are often resistant to most forms of treatment. Not even specialized chemotherapy has a noticeable effect on sarcomatoid mesothelioma.

Biphasic mesothelioma patients fall somewhere in middle between these two. Often the effectiveness of treatment is determined by the composition of the tumors themselves (percentages of mesothelial versus sarcomatoid cells).

Cancer Staging

Cancer staging is a method doctors use to judge how far the disease has progressed. Stage I disease is the least advance while Stage IV cancer is usually viewed as terminal.  However, some Stage IV mesothelioma patients can enjoy some success with various forms of treatments including radical surgery and aggressive chemotherapy and live much longer than the expected time frame.

Generally speaking, if a patient is diagnosed with Stage I or Stage II mesothelioma, they will enjoy a much better prognosis and longer life expectancy than patients diagnosed with later stages of the disease. These early stages of asbestos cancer often respond better to various forms of mesothelioma treatments and may even be localized to small portions of the body.

However, when cancer travels to other portions of the body, including the lymph nodes, the staging is increased. These later stages are harder to treat because patients must undergo systematic treatments which are less-targeted and impact the non-cancerous tissue of the body much more negatively.

Unfortunately, the nature of mesothelioma makes it difficult to diagnose while still in Stage I or II. The disease has an extremely long latency period between the patient’s initial exposure to asbestos and the onset of noticeable symptoms. That period varies from patient to patient but falls somewhere between 10 and 50 years. That means that by the time a patient notices the symptoms of mesothelioma, their disease has often progressed into Stage III or Stage IV.

Prognostic Indicators

In addition to the type of disease and the stage of it at diagnosis, there are a number of prognostic indicators that can dramatically change an expected life span for newly diagnosed mesothelioma patients. Most of these deal with previous or concurrent health conditions.

Indeed, patients with decreased lung capacity due to COPD, asthma, smoking, and various other conditions will suffer much poorer prognoses that relatively healthy patients when diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. This general rule of them plays out across all types of mesothelioma – the healthier a patient is going into the fight, the better off they will be.

Age is also an important prognostic factor. Younger patients can often tolerate more aggressive surgeries and therapeutic treatments. Some elderly patients may be too frail to even attempt them. Indeed, doctors may even caution against accepted methods of “traditional” mesothelioma treatments on aged patients.

No Two Cases Are Alike

Even figuring all of these prognostic indicators together may not be able to paint an accurate picture of just how long an individual mesothelioma patient has to live after diagnosis. There are several tests that mesothelioma specialists can do to get a more accurate representation of the patient’s “chances” but an element of uncertainty is always present.

That’s because no two mesothelioma cases are alike. Each patient and their disease is unique. This means that every treatment regimen must be designed from the ground up for the individual patient. 

As you can see, the number of variables is astounding. Though mesothelioma doctors can figure a rough estimate of expected life span, it should not be viewed as set in stone. 

However, that doesn’t mean that patients shouldn’t try and understand how long they may have to live. Having a general time frame can help when deciding on various treatments, planning for the end of life, and enjoying the remainder of that life to the fullest.