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Mesothelioma is a disease that most people have never even heard of. It only appears in those who have been exposed to asbestos, and is diagnosed in approximately 2,500 to 3,000 people per year, but those who have been told that they are suffering from this rare and fatal disease quickly learn far more than they ever wanted to know about the condition, its causes, treatments and outlook.

One of the most frequently asked questions posed by those who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma has to do with their prognosis. People want to know what their life expectancy is, and whether there is anything that they can do to extend it. They also want to know what their future with the disease holds.

Mesothelioma is Highly Unpredictable

Knowing what to expect when you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma is very difficult, because it can be a highly unpredictable disease. Though medical science has discovered a number of highly effective treatments that have bee shown to offer hope for greater quality of life for those who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, the prognosis for the disease is still grim.

The average life expectancy for those who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma is between eight months and two years, though there are those who have lived with the disease for several years. There are a number of determining factors and variables that can be looked to for an indication of what an individual can expect.

Mesothelioma Life Expectancy Variables

Researchers and mesothelioma specialists have determined that there are certain aspects of each individual mesothelioma patient’s status and disease that can serve as predictors not only to how long they can be expected to live, but also which course of treatment is most suitable. Though patients generally aren’t able to control any of these variables, it is still helpful for the patient to understand what they are so that informed decisions can be made.

The factors that are most important in predicting an individual patient’s prognosis include the kind of mesothelioma that has been diagnosed (pleural, peritoneal, or pericardial,) the stage at which the mesothelioma was diagnosed, the type of cells the mesothelioma tumors are made up of, whether the cancer has spread to other areas of the body, and your overall health condition, including age, gender, and other physical maladies that may be present.

Location of the Original Tumor

Another factor in estimating life expectancy is the location of the original tumor. By this factor there are four types of mesothelioma: pleural mesothelioma is most common and affects the pleural tissue lining the lungs; peritoneal mesothelioma is the next most common and originates in the lining in the abdominal cavity; pericardial, which affects the lining of the heart, and testicular, affecting the lining of the testes, are both very rare.

Of these four, testicular mesothelioma has the longest average life expectancy, although this is based on a very small number of cases. Pericardial mesothelioma has an average life expectancy somewhere between that of pleural and peritoneal, but again this is based on small numbers, which means it may not be very accurate.

Between the two more common types of mesothelioma, those cases that originate in the pleura have the longer life expectancies, but not by much. Peritoneal mesothelioma has a shorter life expectancy, but both of these are deadly and aggressive cancers and most patients cannot expect to have very long life expectancy estimates after a diagnosis. This difference is shifting with a new and more effective treatment for peritoneal mesothelioma that involves injecting heated chemotherapy drugs directly into the abdomen.

Median Life Expectancy by Stage

When a patient gets a diagnosis of mesothelioma, or any type of cancer, it comes with a stage designation that describes the extent of the cancer to the patient and other doctors. For mesothelioma life expectancy estimations, the stage at diagnosis is one of the most important contributing factors. The earlier the stage, the longer the life expectancy will be, although other factors must also be taken into account.

Mesothelioma is typically staged from one to four. Stage I is an early diagnosis, and rare for mesothelioma. It means that the original tumor is still in one place, although it may have penetrated into the tissue surrounding the pleura. By stage II the tumor has invaded tissues like the lung and diaphragm. In stage III mesothelioma has spread farther, possibly into the lymph nodes. By stage IV the cancer has spread into lymph nodes and possibly into more distant sites in the body.

Based on the survival times of other patients, there are average life expectancies for each stage of mesothelioma. For stage I the average life expectancy is 21 months, nearly two years. For stage II, that drops to 19 months, to 16 months for stage III, and only 12 months for stage IV mesothelioma. Again, these are only averages, and other individual factors will determine a more accurate life expectancy for each patient diagnosed.

How Cell Type Affects Life Expectancy

Another important factor in determining mesothelioma life expectancy is the cell type. There are three main categories of cell type: epithelioid, sarcomatoid, and biphasic. Most cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed as epithelioid, which has a longer life expectancy than the other two. Epithelial cells cling to each other strongly. They branch out more slowly and therefore this type of cancer metastasizes more slowly, which gives patients a longer estimate for life expectancy.

Sarcomatoid mesothelioma is cancer made up of mostly sarcomatoid cells, which are more loosely attached to each other. These cells are better able to separate from each other and spread to other areas. This kind of mesothelioma metastasizes more rapidly and has a lower life expectancy. Biphasic mesothelioma contains a mixture of epithelioid and sarcomatoid cells and comes with a life expectancy somewhere between the two. The more sarcomatoid cells there are in the tumor, the lower the life expectancy.

Life and Lifestyle Factors Affect Mesothelioma Life Expectancy

There are several other factors that can affect a predicted life expectancy for a mesothelioma diagnosis that are not related to the cancer itself or the factors that led to the development of the cancer. These are factors that may or may not be controllable by the patient. For instance, age is an important factor that cannot be controlled. The younger the patient is, the longer the life expectancy will be in general. This is because younger people tend to be healthier overall, have stronger immune systems, and are better able to tolerate and recover from aggressive treatments.

Performance status is another factor. This term in medicine describes the overall health, fitness, and abilities of a patient. It is rated with a grade from zero to five. A performance status of zero means a patient is fully active and not restricted by symptoms of cancer. The lower the performance status grade given at the time of diagnosis is, the longer the life expectancy for a patient with mesothelioma. Lifestyle factors affect this. The grade is likely to be lower in patients who are at a healthy weight, who don’t smoke, who eat well and get enough sleep, who cope with stress well, and who get regular exercise.

Maximizing Mesothelioma Life Expectancy

One of the most important things that a person who has been diagnosed with mesothelioma can do to help themselves and to maximize their life expectancy is to seek medical treatment from a qualified mesothelioma specialist. These highly-trained physicians have extensive exposure to this rare disease, as well as cutting-edge knowledge of all of the latest and most successful treatment options.

Survival Rates

Doctors use a statistic called survival rate as one prognostic factor for each individual patient. This is considered along with all the other, above factors to give a patient the most accurate possible estimate for life expectancy after a mesothelioma diagnosis. Statistics typically measure a five-year survival rate, which is the percentage of patients that live five years or more after receiving a cancer diagnosis.

A prognosis can be made more accurate by looking at five-year survival rates because they take into account large populations of cancer patients. For mesothelioma survival rates, only mesothelioma patients are measured. Although these numbers are useful, and even when used in conjunction with a patient’s individual characteristics, a prognosis is still only an estimate.

Survival rates for mesothelioma are generally low compared to many other types of cancers. Generally, for all types of mesothelioma, patients diagnosed at age 45 or older have a five-year survival rate of only 20 percent. For younger patients the survival rate goes up to 37 percent. Survival rates and life expectancies for mesothelioma have also been measured by stage.

For stage I mesothelioma, the median survival rate is 21 months, for stage II the life expectancy drops to 19 months. For patients diagnosed at stage III, a median life expectancy is only 16 months, and for stage IV patients it is only 12 months, or one year. These are median numbers only and individual factors influence how long a patient will survive after a diagnosis.

Survival Rate by Treatment

There are many factors that affect survival rates and individual life expectancies. When looking at bulk statistics and survival rates, there are clear patterns in how treatment impacts the survival of patients. The more aggressive the treatment and the more varied the treatment approach—using more than one treatment technique—the better the survival rates are.

Among patients with pleural mesothelioma, those that received only chemotherapy for treatment, survival rates were around 20 percent after two years and four percent after five years. When surgical treatments were added to chemotherapy, survival rates went up significantly. For instance, patients who underwent a pleurectomy, the survival rates for two and five years went up to 40 and ten percent. For those who underwent an extrapleural pneumonectomy, a more aggressive surgery, the survival rates for two and five years were 37 and 12 percent.

Living with a Difficult Prognosis

It is not unusual for the prognosis for any stage of mesothelioma to be poor. Receiving that prognosis can come as a shock. Facing it is not easy, but it means that you have to make some big choices, and soon. The best thing to do when getting this news is to gather the support of loved ones. Being around and being supported by people who care will be the most important way of coping with a difficult diagnosis and prognosis.

Being given a poor prognosis after being diagnosed with an aggressive cancer like mesothelioma is devastating to most people. If you are facing this situation, you have important choices to make. Even if you choose to be aggressive with treatment, your prognosis is still likely to be disappointing. Now you have to live with that prognosis, and that won’t be easy.

It also helps to spend time with other people who know what you are experiencing. Your friends and family care and they love you, but they don’t necessarily understand what it is like to be given a terminal diagnosis. Consider joining a cancer support group, a mesothelioma support group, if you can find one. There are plenty of support groups you can meet with in person or online. These people will understand you and provide a source of solace you won’t find anywhere else.

As a final step in coming to grips with your prognosis, you may want to consider starting a lawsuit to seek justice for the illness you are now facing. Chances are there was someone or some company to blame for your cancer if you were exposed to asbestos. A lawsuit can give you a sense of justice and closure, but can also provide money for your medical care and to help your loved ones after you are gone.

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