Knowing what to expect when you’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma can be extremely complicated. Your prognosis will depend upon a number of different factors, including the type and location of your tumor, what stage the cancer has progressed to, your age, gender and overall health, and the cell type of the mesothelioma. Much will also depend upon the experience of your physician and the treatment plan that you select.
Unfortunately the overall prognosis for most cases of mesothelioma is not positive. This is an aggressive type of cancer and is almost always malignant. It tends to spread quickly to other tissues and organs and it is too often diagnosed late. This happens because symptoms are similar to those of other conditions and because symptoms often don’t emerge until decades after asbestos exposure first began. If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, make sure you take steps right away to develop a treatment plan and to give yourself the best possible outcome.
The Typical Outlook
A prognosis, given by a medical team, will vary even between patients diagnosed with the same type of cancer. Other factors like the stage of the cancer, and whether or not it has metastasized, age and health of the patient, the subtype or cell type of the cancer and tumor, and for those diagnosed with mesothelioma, the extent of exposure to asbestos all play a role in an individual’s prognosis.
The truth about mesothelioma is that the typical prognosis is not very good. This is a rare type of cancer, with only about 3,000 people diagnosed every year. Most of these people were diagnosed decades after they were first exposed to asbestos. Because of this, most diagnoses come when the cancer is already in the later stages when it is more difficult to treat. The aggressive nature of mesothelioma also plays a role in the poor prognosis most patients get. It aggressively grows and invades other tissues.
Survival Rates and Determining Prognosis
Survival rate is a measurable statistic that doctors can use to determine the prognosis for an individual patient. It is just one factor that helps come up with the most accurate prognosis possible. A five-year survival rate is a typical statistic for any type of cancer, including mesothelioma, and it refers to the percentage of patients that live five years or longer after an initial diagnosis.
The survival rates can be used to help determine prognosis because they are based on large numbers of patients. This provides a fairly accurate average that can be used to figure out each patient’s prognosis along with their individual characteristics that may affect outlook. Even with this information and individual factors, every prognosis is an estimate and cannot be taken as fact.
Overall, survival rates are not very high for mesothelioma. Younger patients have a better outlook. One large study, for instance, found that 37 percent of patients younger than 45 survived five or more years after a mesothelioma diagnosis. For those over 45 the survival rate at five years was significantly lower, at only 20 percent.
Difficulties in Diagnosing Mesothelioma
Part of the issue with the low survival rates and poor outlook with mesothelioma is that it is difficult to diagnose. When a condition is difficult to accurately diagnose it means that misdiagnoses or delayed diagnoses occur and patients don’t get treatment as early as they need it. Instead, the cancer advances while treatment is delayed.
Mesothelioma has a long latency period. It typically is not diagnosed for several decades. During that time the harm caused by asbestos grows and the cancer may even spread to other tissues. Part of the problem is the fact that the symptoms, particularly of pleural mesothelioma, mimic those of other conditions. Fluid in the pleural layers, chest pains, and difficulty breathing can easily be mistaken for pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder, and other conditions.
Prognosis by Type
Among the most important determinants of your mesothelioma prognosis are the type and the ell type of your cancer. Patients who have been diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma generally have a longer survival rate than do those with pleural mesothelioma, while pericardial mesothelioma is worse because it is so difficult to treat. Testicular mesothelioma, although very rare, is not usually as serious as the other types. Surgery to remove the tumor often cures the cancer and these patients have better prognoses than those with pleural, peritoneal, or pericardial mesothelioma.
The histological identification of mesothelioma cells is important; epithelial mesothelioma generally responds better to treatment than does sarcomatoid or biphasic cell types. Epithelial cells tend to cling to each other. As a result of this, they don’t spread to other areas as readily as sarcomatoid cells do. Sarcomatoid mesothelioma is more aggressive, spreads more rapidly, and is always given a worse prognosis. Biphasic mesothelioma, which is a mix of both types of cells, may have a prognosis that depends on whether the tumor has a greater proportion of sarcomatoid or epithelioid cells.
Prognosis by Stage
Survival rates are also determined by how far the cancer has spread. If you have been diagnosed as being in stages I or II, your prognosis will be better than those who have been diagnosed at stages III or IV. Staging is done by looking at the original tumor, the lymph nodes, and other tissues. The more the original tumor has spread to other tissues, and especially to the lymph nodes, the later the stage is and the more difficult the cancer is to treat. Doctors use imaging techniques and histological examination of biopsied cells to determine the stage.
Based on patients treated for pleural mesothelioma between 1995 and 2009 the American Cancer Society has determined the median five-year survival rates for mesothelioma by stage. This is a median, so patients with each stage may have a better or worse outlook depending on various individual factors.
The median survival rate, or how long patients survive after a diagnosis of stage I mesothelioma, is 21 months, or just under two years. For stage II the survival rate is 19 months, and for stage III it is 16 months. By the time the cancer has been diagnosed as stage IV, the survival rate has dropped to just 12 months. These median numbers can be used as a guideline, but of course each person is different and will have an outlook dependent on all individual factors.
Other Factors Impacting Prognosis
In addition to the factors cited above, recent studies have shown that your age, your gender, and the amount of time that you were exposed to asbestos can play an important role in your survival outlook. Smoking history also plays a role, so one of the most important things that you can do for yourself if you are a current smoker is to quit.
The type of treatment that a patient gets is also important in determining prognosis. Patients who are able to have surgery as part of the treatment are considered to have a better outlook and a longer survival. This is related to how much a tumor has spread. Often for patients whose cancer has metastasized, surgery is no longer a valid treatment option.
If you have been exposed to mesothelioma, whether occupationally or environmentally, there is nothing that you can do to protect yourself from getting the disease. Your best course of action for improving your prognosis is to make sure that you are constantly on the lookout for the symptoms of the disease to give yourself the best possible chance for early diagnosis. Paying attention to your overall health, exercising and keeping your weight under control and getting plenty of rest can also keep your body healthy and strong.
If you have symptoms that could be related to mesothelioma, see your doctor right away. Let your doctor know that you have been exposed to mesothelioma. Otherwise you are likely to be diagnosed with other conditions that have similar symptoms. A delayed diagnosis or a misdiagnosis will affect your prognosis, so take the important step of watching for symptoms and acting on them. If your doctor doesn’t take you seriously, or you believe you have been misdiagnosed, seek a second opinion.
How to Improve Prognosis after a Diagnosis
Once diagnosed with mesothelioma, there are additional actions that you can take to improve your overall chances of long-term survival. One of the most important steps that you can take is to put your treatment into the hands of a top-rated mesothelioma specialist who has extensive experience and resources available to provide you with state-of-the-art advanced care at a highly ranked cancer center.
Putting together a treatment plan as soon as possible and putting it into action is crucial in extending a prognosis. There are many different treatment options and you have a choice as to whether you want to be aggressive in attacking the cancer. Some people choose to get treatment that will make them more comfortable for the rest of their lives, while others want to extend the prognosis at all costs.
Typical treatments for mesothelioma that can extend the life expectancy include chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. Some patients cannot have surgery, but they can be given chemotherapy and radiation therapy to shrink tumors and slow the rate at which they spread. For those who can have surgery done to debulk, or remove as much tumor tissue as possible, it is often followed by chemotherapy and radiation to eliminate even more of the cancerous tissue.
Another approach to extending the life expectancy of a patient after a mesothelioma diagnosis is to try new therapies. Some of these may be unproven. For instance, you can get involved in a clinical trial for a new therapy or medication. These tests are to determine the safety and the efficacy of new treatments and patients with terminal conditions are usually chosen to be a part of the trials. There are risks associated with clinical trials, but some people feel as if they have nothing left to lose and want to try anything that might help. In addition to clinical trials there are treatments like gene therapy and immunotherapy that are emerging strategies for treating cancer and may help improve the prognosis.
Living with Mesothelioma and a Tough 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.
There are some steps you can take to help cope with your mesothelioma prognosis. The first and most important thing you need is to have support. Keep your family and friends close and let them help you. Let them lend a shoulder to cry on, someone to shout at, or just someone to be there when you feel you can’t be alone. If you have the people you love around you, the prognosis will be much easier to live with.
As much as that support system may be there for you and willing to help you, they can’t fully understand what you are going through. In addition to having these loved ones in your life, it also helps to have connections with other people struggling with cancer and mesothelioma. Look for a support group that you can meet with, even if only online, to talk about your shared feelings and experiences. This can go a long way toward helping you to feel better about accepting your mesothelioma diagnosis.
Finally, consider being part of a lawsuit if you believe that someone is to blame for your asbestos exposure and resulting illness. Getting justice makes many patients feel just a little bit better about what they’re going through. Filing a lawsuit, joining an existing one, or taking part in an asbestos trust fund can also provide you and your family with much-needed compensation. An experienced mesothelioma lawyer can help you take the next step to get justice and money for your loved ones.
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