Mesothelioma patients: What are some of the emerging treatment options?

There is no cure for mesothelioma, but recent advances have allowed specialists to start taking a more curative approach.

Malignant mesothelioma is the rare and aggressive cancer caused almost exclusively by an exposure to asbestos, presenting unique and difficult challenges for patients and their families.

Unlike lung, breast, prostate or other more common cancers, mesothelioma cancer remains a mystery to most in the medical profession, including many oncologists who rarely treat it or even see it.

Less than 3,000 new cases are diagnosed annually in the U.S.

Finding a specialty center with vast experience in the disease is critical to survival. There is no cure for mesothelioma, but recent advances have allowed specialists to start taking a more curative approach.

The typical mesothelioma patent will live only 9-12 months after diagnosis, yet there are mesothelioma survivors today living three, ten or more years after undergoing aggressive, multidisciplinary treatment.

“Mesothelioma is a diffuse disease that presents unique problems,” said renowned thoracic surgeon and mesothelioma specialist Dr. Robert Cameron at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center. “But patients can live for quite some time now if treated correctly. There are options out there today, but many doctors don’t even know about them.”

Advances being made in treatment

Cameron’s hope is that mesothelioma soon can be treated as a chronic disease, such as diabetes or hypertension, using fewer of the toxic therapies of the past. He has spent the last 20 years as a pioneer in mesothelioma treatment advances.

Mesothelioma often begins in the thin membrane surrounding the lungs. It is caused by microscopic asbestos fibers that are inhaled or ingested unknowingly and become lodged in that membrane. They cause scarring and lead to the cancer many years later.

It is difficult to diagnose early, and even tougher to control once it begins to metastasize.

The Need for Experience

The multimodal approach of surgery/chemotherapy/radiation has extended lives significantly, but emerging treatments being used in clinical trials today have shown even more promise.

They include:

  • Immunotherapy: Using the body’s own immune system to fight off the cancer growth. It works by unmasking the tumor cells and revving up the immune system. Although it is no cure for the cancer, it has been used successfully in combination with other treatment options. And it comes without toxic side effects.
  • Gene therapy: Manipulates the genes of a patient. The goal is to repair the damage done by the carcinogens causing the cancer to spread. The treatment also can replace faulty genes with new ones that can improve the outcome.
  • Photodynamic therapy: An experimental treatment that involves light energy and drugs that react specifically to that light emission to kill cancer cells. It has worked well previously with other types of cancer but still is in the early stages of testing with mesothelioma.

There are newer chemotherapy drugs being developed and more effective radiation therapies emerging. Surgeries have become more precise, offering hope to new patients.

Most important, though, is reaching a specialty center where the latest and greatest treatments are being explored.

Photo: Flickr user Yale Rosen

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