If you or a loved one has just been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you no doubt have a lot of questions. No matter who you are, “How long do I have to live?” is likely one of the first you’ll ask when learning you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. Also at the top of the list are questions about how mesothelioma type, location and stage of progression will affect your outcome, and these are all natural things to wonder about.
When you have cancer, knowledge is power. The more you know, the more effectively you can treat your disease and the better your outcomes are likely to be. That’s why we’re here with a comprehensive look at what mesothelioma is, how long you’re likely to live when you’ve been diagnosed with it, and the factors and characteristics that affect prognosis.
What Is Mesothelioma?
First, let’s start with the basics. Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that is most commonly associated with exposure to asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral commonly used as insulation. Although there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, mesothelioma is most common in people who experienced high levels of exposure over a period of several years.
Although many people assume that mesothelioma is simply another type of lung disease, it is actually a cancer that specifically affects the lining (called mesothelium) of several bodily organs, most commonly the lungs, stomach and heart. It can also affect the abdomen in general, as well as the testicles. This type of cancer is extremely serious and always deadly, and has typically resulted in death no more than two years after diagnosis. However, new treatments are extending that timeframe somewhat.
How Long Do Mesothelioma Patients Typically Live?
Because so many factors go into making a mesothelioma prediction, it is impossible for physicians to say exactly how long someone will live when they’ve been diagnosed with the disease. Every case is different, and life expectancy is affected by age of the patient, location and type of mesothelioma, how early it was caught, what treatments are available to them and more. Often patients do outlive their prognoses, while other times the disease progresses much more quickly than expected. That said, oncologists can usually offer a basic estimate about how long patients will live based on assessing the specific factors of your case.
It is important to understand that no matter how favorable your factors are, though, you’re still unlikely to live more than a few years if you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma. Because the disease has a long latency period (during which no symptoms manifest) it often gets caught late, resulting in too narrow a window for effective treatment. Most people die within the first year, and only around 10 percent of patients live longer than two years.
That is not to say, however, that treatment is impossible. In fact, there are a variety of excellent options that we will discuss below.
Classifying Mesothelioma Prognosis by Site or Cell Type
There are several different types of mesothelioma, broken down by the site in the body or the type of cell they affect. The prognosis, life expectancy and recommended course of treatment for a given patient will depend on the specific type of mesothelioma they have been diagnosed with. The different types of mesothelioma include:
- Pleural Mesothelioma: This type of mesothelioma affects the lining around the lungs, called the pleura. It is the most common type, accounting for about 75 percent of all mesothelioma cases, and explaining why so many people assume that mesothelioma is just another type of lung cancer.
- Peritoneal Mesothelioma: The peritoneum is the lining surrounding the gastrointestinal tract. Because it is hard to diagnose this condition, it is often misdiagnosed, resulting in failure to treat until too late.
- Pericardial Mesothelioma: The tissue sac covering the heart is known as the pericardium. This type represents only five percent of cases, but is just as severe as the other types.
Mesothelioma prognosis also depends on the type of cell that has become cancerous. There are two types of cells that may become affected. Epithelial cells typically line blood vessels and other types of tissue throughout the body, and are easier to treat than sarcomatoid cells, which are cancerous cells in connective tissue. These cells, unfortunately, are quite resistant to treatment. While about 50 percent of patients have the easier to treat epithelial form, only about 15 percent have the sarcomatoid form. The remaining 35 percent of patients have mixed epithelial and sarcomatoid mesothelioma.
Classifying Mesothelioma Prognosis by Stage of Disease
As with other types of cancer, the more advanced mesothelioma becomes, the harder it is to treat and the shorter the patient’s life expectancy will be. That’s why it’s important to understand the stages well, so you can begin treating as soon as possible. Here is a brief breakdown of the stages:
- Stage 1: In this stage, surgical removal is most feasible because the cancer is localized and hasn’t spread to other tissues or lymph nodes. Generally in this stage the cancer is only on one side of the pleura, or lining, and so removal is much easier.
- Stage 2: The tumor has grown, and has typically spread to the lung or diaphragm, and sometimes lymph nodes. Surgery may still be possible, but because the cancer has most likely spread to both sides of the lining, it may be more difficult to remove.
- Stage 3: By this point, the tumor has typically spread to an entire region (such as the chest wall or lymph nodes, or both) and surgery is usually ruled out.
- Stage 4: Mesothelioma has invaded multiple parts of the body, the lymph nodes are involved and the cancer has spread to other organs. The cancer has metastasized and can no longer be surgically removed.
Health and History of Mesothelioma Patients
While no physician can give an iron-clad prognosis, several health and history factors do weigh in. For instance, if the patient has up until this point generally been healthy and lived a clean lifestyle, the body is likely to hold out longer against the disease. If, on the other hand, the patient is overweight, weak or has other preexisting health conditions, their lifespan is probably going to be shorter.
While smoking tobacco does not typically lead to mesothelioma on its own (though it does lead to lung cancer), smoking tobacco and being exposed to asbestos brings your chance of developing mesothelioma up to 90 percent. If you have been diagnosed, stop smoking immediately and you may be able to add some time to your life.
The range of available treatment options definitely affects your mesothelioma prognosis. If, for instance, you are in stages 1 or 2, and surgery is still a viable option, you are much more likely to live past the two-year mark. Other treatment options include radiation and chemotherapy, and if the patient responds well, these can also significantly extend lifespan. Especially when your body responds favorably to one or more types of treatment, you may become one of the lucky who gets to outlive that one-year mark.
Unfortunately, no matter what your prognosis, medical treatment can get very expensive and may sometimes be beyond what your insurance company will cover. If that is the case, it behooves you to both explore cheaper alternative treatments – such as cannabis oil or Spirulina – and to consider financial assistance that can help you or your loved one pay for treatment. Don’t hesitate to explore all your options or get advice from an attorney, because the more money you have to spend on treatment, the better able you will be to combat the disease.