A diagnosis of mesothelioma can feel like a nightmare for many people. The aggressive form of cancer usually comes with a poor prognosis for its victims. In fact, standard mesothelioma life expectancy is only around 1 to 2 years, meaning that long-term mesothelioma survival is rare. There is still hope for mesothelioma patients, however.
Many mesothelioma survivors have lived 5 to 10 years after their original diagnosis. Some have lived even longer thanks to new breakthroughs in medical treatments. Researchers and medical professionals are coming closer to finding a cure every day. They are also discovering new diagnostic techniques to help identify the existence of mesothelioma earlier.
Still, many patients who are diagnosed with mesothelioma run into a cavalcade of issues, not the least of which is the uncompromising nature of the disease’s spread. But, what else causes such a poor mesothelioma prognosis?
Why is Mesothelioma So Deadly?
Mesothelioma life expectancy is often fairly grim. The aforementioned average time frame from diagnosis to end of life is typically between 1 and 2 years. In addition to its aggressive nature, mesothelioma is also hard to spot. It can develop over a period of years with no major symptoms, and, by the time it’s detected, it may have spread too far for curative treatment measures. During the diagnostic process, it is not uncommon for doctors to think a patient is suffering from an entirely different disease.
Mesothelioma can often be mistaken for:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD)
- Lung cancer
- Crohn’s disease
- Ovarian cancer
- Irritable bowel syndrome
Because of these common mistakes, it can be quite a while before mesothelioma is accurately diagnosed and a proper treatment regimen is begun. In the time it takes to reach a diagnosis, the disease may progress beyond repair.
We also know that the single most significant contributor to a mesothelioma diagnosis is asbestos exposure. The latency period (or period of time that it takes for a disease to fully develop) can actually take as long as 50 years. So, it may be hard to make the correlation between asbestos exposure that occurred half a century ago and a disease you have been diagnosed with in the present.
Early detection is key during the diagnostic process. Mesothelioma symptoms like a heavy cough, chest pain, abdominal pain, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, and others are all non-specific. So, if you can recall any possible exposure to asbestos in your lifetime, it is vital to let your doctor know. That information can help push them toward an accurate diagnosis that may help you survive longer.
What Factors Influence Survival Rates?
Obviously, not every individual diagnosed with mesothelioma has the same experience. Some patients end up achieving long-term mesothelioma survival and eventually return to their normal lives. Others may only survive for a few months after diagnosis. So, why are some mesothelioma patients more fortunate than others?
There is a variety of reasons, including:
- Disease location
- Cell type
- Type of treatments received
- Health prior to diagnosis
- Lifestyle choices
- The stage of the disease
Mesothelioma tends to be diagnosed in older patients who are less capable of fighting it off. Patients between the ages of 65 and 74 have a 5-year survival rate of only around 10%. This means that, out of every 100 patients in that age group, only around 10 of them will survive 5 years after diagnosis. In general, women are more likely to survive longer than men, however.
Prior health and lifestyle choices can also affect survivability. Individuals who already suffered from major diseases like diabetes or heart disease will have difficulty overcoming a mesothelioma diagnosis. Lifestyle choices like smoking or having a poor diet can also adversely affect prognoses.
Another major determining factor is the location of the disease. There are three main types of mesothelioma, each of which has different average survival rates.
- Pleural mesothelioma, occurring in the lining of the lungs and accounting for 70 to 90% of all cases
- Peritoneal mesothelioma, occurring in the lining of the abdominal cavity and accounting for 10 to 30% of all cases
- Pericardial mesothelioma, occurring in the lining of the heart sac and accounting for roughly 1% of all cases
Peritoneal mesothelioma is generally considered the most “survivable” form of the disease. The average 5-year survival rate for that disease is 65% compared to only 12% for pleural mesothelioma and 23% for pericardial mesothelioma. The combination of cytoreductive surgery, hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC), standard chemotherapy, and radiation therapy is usually the reason for this improvement in life expectancy.
In general, patients with any type of mesothelioma live longer when they undergo multiple treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
Of course, aggressive treatment options are only really available to patients who can withstand it. Most mesothelioma patients are diagnosed in Stage 3 or 4, meaning that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Tumors and cancerous cells can be found virtually anywhere in Stages 3 and 4, and even a highly aggressive treatment approach might not be able to rid the body of cancer completely. It is not uncommon for patients to opt only for palliative treatments if they have late-stage mesothelioma.
The actual cancer cell type can also influence survival rates. There are three cell types associated with mesothelioma:
- Epithelioid (most common and least aggressive)
- Sarcomatoid (least common and most aggressive)
- Biphasic (a combination of epithelioid and sarcomatoid cells. Aggressiveness depends on which type of cell is dominant)
Obviously, a patient with stage 1 peritoneal epithelioid mesothelioma who is only 45 years old and relatively healthy will have a better chance of long-term survival than a 75-year-old with stage 4 pleural sarcomatoid mesothelioma who was a lifelong smoker.
Long-Term Mesothelioma Survivors
Despite the dismal prognoses for many patients, long-term mesothelioma survivors do exist. They offer hope to anyone diagnosed with the disease who may not be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Many long-term survivors were only given a year or so to live, but they have managed to outlast that original life expectancy estimate by over a decade.
It should also be noted that the definition of “survivor” as it relates to mesothelioma may be different than most other diseases. Because mesothelioma life expectancy is generally so short, anyone who lives longer than their original estimate can be considered a survivor in some form. Indeed, anyone with the disease at all can be labeled a courageous person.
Paul Kraus is currently the longest-surviving mesothelioma patient on record. He was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 1997 after being exposed to asbestos during a summer job he held in 1962 in Australia. He was also born in 1944 in a Nazi concentration camp in Austria, meaning that he is both a survivor of mesothelioma and the Holocaust.
Kraus has used a variety of conventional and alternative treatment methods to beat back the spread of the disease. One such treatment is known as “Ozone therapy” which works under the premise that cancerous cells struggle to multiply in environments with abundant oxygen.
He also placed himself on a strict diet of cancer-attacking vegetables, fruits, and herbs while exercising routinely and meditating at least two times per day. Kraus is certainly an inspiration to anyone suffering from mesothelioma.
Mavis Nye’s road to becoming a mesothelioma survivor has been a difficult one. A native of the United Kingdom, Nye was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in 2009. Her husband was a shipwright when she was young, and she would often do his laundry, unwittingly exposing herself to asbestos. At the time of her diagnosis, her life expectancy was only 3 months.
She was given a pleurodesis, an often palliative procedure that removes fluid in the pleural space and makes it easier for patients to breathe. She was also put on a chemotherapy regimen of pemetrexed (brand name Alimta) and cisplatin. The treatment effectively shrunk her tumors and allowed her to survive for 15 months before new growths started appearing.
She then attempted to join several clinical trials in which she could take new, experimental medications. Eventually, she joined a clinical trial for the immunotherapy drug, pembrolizumab (brand name Keytruda). That clinical trial essentially saved her life as the new medication was able to beat back her spreading cancer. She has been cancer-free since then and has also become an advocate for clinical trials and immunotherapy drugs.
Heather Von St. James
One of the more notable mesothelioma survivors is Heather Von St. James. She was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in 2006 at the relatively young age of 36. She had also just given birth to a daughter 3 months prior to her diagnosis. At the time, she was only given 15 months to live.
Obviously dissatisfied with that estimate, Von St. James sought out a risky procedure with the surgeons at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
The surgical procedure, an extrapleural pneumonectomy, removed all of the following:
- Her entire left lung
- The lung lining of her right lung
- Her diaphragm
- The lining of her heart
The latter two were replaced with surgical Gore-Tex, a stretchy material made of polytetrafluoroethylene that is practically inert inside the human body. After this major surgical procedure, Von St. James’ chest cavity was given a heated chemotherapy wash. She also underwent several rounds of standard chemotherapy and radiation therapy to shrink tumors and kill remaining cancer cells. She has been mesothelioma-free for over a decade now.
Stephen Jay Gould
Stephen Jay Gould was an evolutionary biologist and scientific author who was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 1982. After diagnosis, he looked up statistics and saw that the median life expectancy for someone in his shoes was only 8 months. He was only 40 at the time of his diagnosis and he was relatively optimistic.
After two years of surgical procedures, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, Gould was declared mesothelioma free. He would go on to write a column in the magazine, Discover, entitled “The Median Isn’t the Message.” The column frequently discussed the misleading nature of median life expectancies and how over 50% of people will survive longer than those medians.
Obviously, his column became a source of inspiration for patients with mesothelioma, cancer, and any kind of potentially terminal disease. Although Gould passed away in 2002 of an unrelated type of lung cancer, his legacy of hope still remains as a shining testament to the beauty of his life.
It may only be a matter of years before long-term mesothelioma survivors become the norm. In any event, it’s important to never give up hope. Even the most dire circumstances can be overcome with the right amount practical treatment and a positive outlook.
Paul Cowley just 34 when he was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in 2012. It was largely a mystery to him how the disease was able to develop as he had never worked with asbestos and couldn’t recall being exposed to it as a child. Unfortunately, he would later realize that the prevalence of asbestos products in schools in the 1980s left him open to asbestos exposure.
Because of his relative youth, he was able to undergo a battery of aggressive treatments, including two operations and six rounds of chemotherapy. These treatments lasted for six grueling months, but Cowley came out on top. He has survived for six years and his cancer has been in remission for five. He has since returned to work and become an advocate for asbestos awareness and removal in schools.
In 1998, Wendy Holmes was given perhaps the worst news of her life: she had stage 4 mesothelioma. The standard life expectancy for stage 4 mesothelioma is only around 6 months. Because Holmes was in otherwise good health, she was given 12 to 18 months to live. At the time of her diagnosis, Holmes was experiencing no symptoms and she was appropriately stunned.
Still, Holmes did not take mesothelioma lying down. Instead, she sought a mix of both conventional and holistic treatments. She was given three rounds of chemotherapy treatments and also performed several self-healing techniques and has been cancer-free for 20 years. She is now an advocate for patients and a licensed holistic health practitioner