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The use of prosthetics in mesothelioma surgery is necessary for some patients. Removal of part or all of the diaphragm may necessitate replacement with prosthetic components. In the future, prosthetic lungs may be available to patients with pleural mesothelioma.
The most extensive surgery option for a mesothelioma patient to remove all cancerous tissue is called an extrapleural pneumonectomy. It involves removing an entire lung, part of the diaphragm, the pleura that lines the chest cavity, and sometimes even the tissue lining the heart called the pericardium.
For best outcomes, this surgery is most appropriately done by an experienced thoracic surgeon who has specialized training in performing this surgery. It also requires the hospital to have staff that is trained in post-operative care to prevent complications.
Patients with advanced mesothelioma are not eligible for this surgery. It is only done for those patients whose cancer has not yet spread to lymph nodes or other tissues or organs.
There is a potential that an extrapleural pneumonectomy can cure a patient with early-stage mesothelioma, but it is risky and complicated. Many who survive it will have a recurrence in the future, and 6% of patients die during this procedure or shortly after it.
Even when an extrapleural pneumonectomy is successful, there may be complications. Patients must be in overall good health before undergoing this surgery because the remaining lung will be doing double duty, and the heart will have to work harder to pump blood to the one lung.
Older patients or those with weak hearts or other lung problems besides the cancer are not usually eligible for the surgery.
Reconstructing a Prosthetic Diaphragm
A critical part of an extrapleural pneumonectomy is the reconstruction of the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a muscle situated underneath the lungs and separates the abdominal cavity from the chest cavity.
The muscle contracts to allow air to fill the lungs and releases to help push it out. It is necessary for respiration, so surgeons must reconstruct it with prosthetics after a surgery that removes it. Without a reconstructed diaphragm, pulmonary function and breathing would be further impaired.
The diaphragm can be reconstructed using either autologous or alloplastic materials. Autologous means it comes from the body. The surgeon can rearrange nearby muscles to fill this gap. Benefits include a lower risk of infection since it avoids foreign objects; however, it can have complications related to moving the muscle.
Alloplastic materials are foreign and continue to change over the years. This can include surgical mesh, plastics, and Gore-Tex. Reconstruction of the diaphragm with prosthetic materials is used in other surgeries for things like diaphragm defects.
It is a procedure that has good outcomes for the patient and is typically low-risk; however, any foreign object in the body can cause infection.
The Problem with Lung Transplants for Cancer Patients
Removing one entire lung is a serious surgery, and it can result in serious complications. Living with just one lung reduces pulmonary function and restricts a patient’s ability to be active.
Studies have shown that there is often a trade-off: when the extrapleural pneumonectomy is done for a patient with symptoms of mesothelioma, those symptoms are reduced after the surgery. For those who are still asymptomatic, the surgery results in a lowered quality of life.
Appropriate testing before surgery can allow the surgeon to give estimates of symptoms they may experience during and after their recovery.
Lung transplants might seem like a reasonable option for someone forced to lose a lung over mesothelioma, but it is not done. The main reason mesothelioma patients do not get lung transplants is because of a low chance of survival. Also, donor organs are scarce.
The few donated lungs available are saved for patients for whom a transplant will improve quality of life and potentially save that life. Lung transplants treat conditions like congenital defects, cystic fibrosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Artificial Lungs and the Future of Implantable Prosthetic Lungs
Because donated lungs are not available to patients with mesothelioma, prosthetic lungs have been considered. Current artificial lungs are external devices, known as ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. These devices pump blood through the artificial lung to oxygenate it and then back into the body.
The use of the ECMO device is intended to be temporary. They are used for patients expected to recover lung function and who do not do well on a ventilator.
An implantable, internal prosthetic lung would be a significant breakthrough in medical science. It would negate the need for donor lungs, which are few and far between. Even mesothelioma patients might benefit from a prosthetic device.
Researchers have created such a device, but it has not completed testing yet. There are many issues to overcome with an implantable prosthetic lung, including simply fitting it into the chest cavity while ensuring it can provide adequate oxygenation for the blood and rejection by the host body.
Currently, the closest thing to an implantable prosthetic lung is a device that is smaller than an ECMO device, and that can be strapped to the outside of the body. Instead of a mechanical pump, this device uses the heart to pump oxygenated blood.
If it works in trials, the next step would be to figure out how it could be implanted into the body. The promise of prosthetic lungs is huge but still a part of theory, not practice.
Mesothelioma is a tricky cancer to treat. Surgery plays a vital role in giving patients hope for survival. For those who are eligible for radical surgeries like extrapleural pneumonectomy, advances in prosthetics are important. Artificial diaphragms are being used now, and prosthetic lungs may be available in the future.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by Anne Courtney, AOCNP, DNP
Anne Courtney has a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and is an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner. She has years of oncology experience working with patients with malignant mesothelioma, as well as other types of cancer. Dr. Courtney currently works at University of Texas LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes.