Mesothelioma is a rare, aggressive cancer caused by asbestos exposure. It impacts thousands of people every year in the U.S. The sobering statistics about this illness show just how devastating asbestos has been for so many victims and their families.
What Is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium. The mesothelium is a thin, double-layer of tissue that covers most organs in the body. The most common form of this cancer affects the pleura, the part of the mesothelium in the chest cavity and around the lungs.
- Mesothelioma is primarily caused by asbestos exposure.
- Not everyone exposed to asbestos gets mesothelioma, but most people with mesothelioma have been exposed to asbestos.
- Asbestos is a mineral used in a number of industrial and occupational settings in the United States. It was used especially heavily in the U.S. Navy and on ships.
- There are four types of mesothelioma: pleural, peritoneal, pericardial, and testicular. Pleural and peritoneal are the most common types.
- Approximately 3,000 Americans get a mesothelioma diagnosis each year.
- Nearly 30% of those diagnoses are in veterans.
- Life expectancy has expanded as a result of research, but is still just fifteen months on average.
Mesothelioma Is a Worldwide Disease
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer. Incidence is falling in the United States due to the ban on many uses of asbestos put in place decades ago.
This is not just an American disease. Mesothelioma occurs widely in Australia and Europe, and its incidence is on the rise in many places in the world where asbestos continues to be used.
Around the world, over 38,000 people die from mesothelioma each year.
Most of the mesothelioma victims, both in the U.S. and worldwide, developed the disease after years of exposure to workplace asbestos.
Important Mesothelioma Statistics
- Pleural mesothelioma, which affects the tissue around the lungs, represents between 70 and 90% of all diagnosed cases,
- Peritoneal mesothelioma, which affects the tissue in the abdomen, makes up about 10% of all cases.
- Mesothelioma is rare. Only a small percentage (between 2 and 10%) of those exposed to asbestos over a prolonged period of time will be diagnosed with mesothelioma.
- Women are far less likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma but have longer survival rates.
- The mesothelioma rate in the U.S. is dropping. It increased through the 1990s when it finally began to level off and even decrease.
- The highest rates of incidence of mesothelioma in the U.S. are in Washington, Alaska, West Virginia, New Jersey, and Maine.
- The total numbers of cases are highest in California, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, and New York.
- Mesothelioma rates are higher in white and Hispanic Americans than in African and Asian Americans.
- Seventy-two is the average age of diagnosis for pleural mesothelioma. Diagnosis often comes decades after asbestos exposure.
- The five-year relative survival rate for mesothelioma localized to the pleural tissue is 18%. This drops to 12 and 7% for regional and distant mesotheliomas.
- Multimodal treatment is most effective in fighting mesothelioma, providing patients with a median survival time of twenty-nine months.
How Fast Does Mesothelioma Progress?
Asbestos exposure is known to be a major risk factor for mesothelioma, but it often takes decades for symptoms of the illness to appear.
The latency period is the time between asbestos exposure and the diagnosis of a related illness. It can be 20 to 60 years long.
This is why most people diagnosed with mesothelioma are older. The average latency period is around 50 years.
They Symptoms of Mesothelioma
It is important if you believe there is any chance you could have been exposed, that you are aware of the signs and symptoms of mesothelioma:
- Pleural mesothelioma causes symptoms similar to those of more common illnesses. These include a persistent cough, chest pain, and shortness of breath. These symptoms are not often taken seriously or lead to a misdiagnosis because they are similar to the flu or pneumonia.
- Peritoneal mesothelioma causes symptoms like pain and swelling in the abdomen, diarrhea, constipation, or bowel obstruction. These can lead to initial misdiagnoses of irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, and other illnesses.
- Pericardial mesothelioma is exceptionally rare and affects the tissue lining the heart. Only a couple hundred cases of this type have ever been diagnosed. Symptoms it may cause include heart palpitations and an irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, chest pains, coughing, fatigue, heart failure, and swelling in the lower limbs.
Symptoms of mesothelioma are often mild or so similar to common illnesses that it takes a long time to get an accurate diagnosis. The sooner patients receive the right diagnosis, the better their outcome.
How Mesothelioma Is Diagnosed
- A physical exam and blood tests that often rule out more common conditions
- X-rays that can also rule out some diseases, like pneumonia, as a cause of symptoms
- More detailed scans, including MRI or CT imaging to investigate soft tissues and look for abnormal areas that may be tumors
- A biopsy, which is a collected sample of tissue and cells examined by pathologists
Even experienced medical professionals find it difficult to diagnose mesothelioma. The biopsy is an essential step in confirming the diagnosis. Doctors may also use blood tests to look for characteristic markers of mesothelioma and to get a more complete picture.
How Is Mesothelioma Treated?
Treatment for mesothelioma depends on several factors: the type of mesothelioma, the stage of the cancer, patient preferences, and patient health. Most patients are treated with a multimodal approach and a combination of:
- Surgery, which is used to remove as much cancerous tissue as possible,
- Chemotherapy, which involves giving intravenous drugs to kill fast-growing cancer cells and can be used before, after, or separately from surgery, and in some cases
- Radiation therapy, to shrink tumors or destroy any remaining cancer cells after surgery.
Peritoneal mesothelioma is often treated with surgery followed by heated chemotherapy drugs administered directly into the abdominal cavity. This is one of the most effective treatments for managing and even curing this type of mesothelioma.
Researchers are also developing and testing new treatments all the time. These include gene therapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy.
Some patients qualify for clinical trials, studies of novel therapeutics and procedures. There are risks associated with trial but also potential benefits.
Where Can Patients Find the Best Treatment for Mesothelioma?
You may start with your doctor when you have symptoms, but eventually, you will need an oncologist and other specialists. Because mesothelioma is rare, patients get the best care from the few specialists with mesothelioma experience.
The best treatment comes from mesothelioma specialists working in world-renowned cancer treatment centers:
- MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston. This world-famous cancer center includes mesothelioma specialists on staff, including Dr. Anne Tsao, director of the Mesothelioma Program. It also offers some of the most innovative new treatments and clinical trials.
- The Pacific Mesothelioma Center, Los Angeles. Dr. Robert Cameron leads the pleural mesothelioma treatment team here with an emphasis on less invasive surgeries. The PMC’s overarching goal is to cure mesothelioma.
- Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston. Affiliated with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, this hospital houses the International Mesothelioma Program. It is led by leading mesothelioma expert Dr. Rafael Bueno.
- The University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center, Chicago. This cancer center has a dedicated mesothelioma program. Leading the program is Dr. Hedy Lee Kindler, a specialist in treating gastrointestinal cancers, including peritoneal mesothelioma.
- Hillman Cancer Center, Pittsburgh. Located at the University of Pittsburgh, this cancer center has a mesothelioma specialty care program. On staff is Dr. David Bartlett, who offers regional perfusion therapy.
- During stage I, the cancer remains localized, although with mesothelioma the prognosis is still not good.
- By stage II the cancer has spread in the local area.
- Stage III mesothelioma has spread to lymph nodes. Treatment is very difficult by this stage.
- By stage IV the cancer has metastasized, or spread to more distant parts of the body. Managing the disease becomes more challenging as the stages advance, and the prognosis very poor.
Survival Rate and Life Expectancy for Mesothelioma
The prognosis for mesothelioma is generally not positive. This cancer is aggressive, spreads rapidly, and does not always respond well to treatment.
Prognosis depends on several individual factors:
- The stage. The earlier the stage, the less the cancer has spread. It is easier to treat and surgery is usually an option.
- Location of tumor. The primary tumor location also impacts prognosis. Peritoneal patients generally have a longer life expectancy.
- Cell type. Mesothelioma can be classified as epitheloid, sarcomatoid, or biphasic, depending on the primary cell type in the tumors. Epithelioid cancers have a better prognosis.
- Patient age. Younger patients usually fare better and can withstand more aggressive treatments.
- Health. Patients in better overall health also do better in most cases.
- Gender. Women have a longer life expectancy, possibly because they are more likely to have peritoneal mesothelioma.
- Treatment choice. Patients who start treatment immediately and choose more aggressive treatments may live longer.
Average Survival Rates and Times
Survival rate is a statistic that looks at the average among a large group of patients. The five-year survival rate is the percentage of patients still living five years after diagnosis:
- Localized tumors – 20%
- Regional spread – 12%
- Distant spread, or metastasized – 8%
Taking into account late-stage and early-stage diagnoses, the average five-year survival rate is 10%.
Treatment makes a big difference to survival time, the statistic that measures the average time after diagnosis that patients live. Among patients who have undergone treatment for pleural mesothelioma, average survival times by stage are:
- Stage I – 22.2 months
- Stage II – 20.0 months
- Stage III – 17.9 months
- Stage IV – 14.9 months
Does Anyone Survive Mesothelioma?
Experts consider mesothelioma to be a terminal illness. They approach treatment with the goals of extending life expectancy and making patients more comfortable, rarely with the hope of a cure or remission.
Despite this fact, a handful of people have survived mesothelioma for years. The patients most likely to achieve long-term remission are younger and healthier, have early-stage cancer, and opt for aggressive, immediate treatments.
Surgery is the only real hope to achieve remission. Patients who qualify for extensive surgery to remove as much cancerous tissue as possible may survive. They also need additional treatments, like radiation and chemotherapy to reduce the risk of recurrence.
Financial Assistance and Compensation
Mesothelioma is a costly illness. There are few treatment specialists. Care requires expensive procedures, including surgery, chemotherapy drugs, and radiation therapy.
Patients often need to travel to get the best care, which adds more costs. They may be unable to continue working or have dependents.
Many people end up with a mesothelioma diagnosis because they were victims of negligent asbestos exposure. Some turn to asbestos lawsuits against manufacturers of asbestos products or former employers to get compensation.
Others can make claims with asbestos trust funds, which companies specifically set up to compensate victims. Veterans may turn to the Veterans Administration to get financial assistance, especially for medical care.
A mesothelioma lawyer can help you understand your options and make the best choice for legal action.
Frequently Asked Questions
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited byLuis Argote-Greene, M.D.
Luis Argote-Greene is an internationally recognized thoracic surgeon. He has trained and worked with some of the most prominently known thoracic surgeons in the United States and Mexico, including pioneering mesothelioma surgeon Dr. David Sugarbaker. He is professionally affiliated with University Hospitals (UH). His areas of interest and expertise are mesothelioma, mediastinal tumors, thoracic malignancies, lung cancer, lung transplantation, esophageal cancer, experimental surgery, and lung volume reduction. Dr. Argote-Greene has also done pioneering work with video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS), as well as robotic assisted minimally invasive surgery. He has taught the procedures to other surgeons both nationally and internationally.