Mesothelioma victims – Ask any oncologist to list the most-difficult-to-treat cancers and there’s no doubt that mesothelioma will be on the top of most – if not all – of their lists. It’s a frustrating disease that has doctors wringing their hands and wishing they could do more.
So, what makes mesothelioma such a hard disease to treat and why is the possibility for a positive prognosis rare? Is there any chance that the mortality rate might change in the years ahead?
The answer to the first part of the question has to do with the particulars of the disease and how it manifests itself. Literally, mesothelioma can “hide” in the body for decades – sometimes as long as 50 years – before it appears.
Though there have been some exceptions to this long latency period (particularly among 9-11 first responders who were exposed to excessive amounts of asbestos all at one time), those who’ve worked in professions that include steel workers, oil refinery employers, pipefitters, plumbers, electricians, welders, and insulators have often been surprised to learn of the presence of mesothelioma years and years after they’ve been exposed.
Because of this lengthy latency period, when symptoms do arise, no one is thinking about asbestos and cancer. Consider the symptoms of mesothelioma, which include:
• Chest pain
• Shortness of breath
These symptoms can apply to dozens of common ailments, from heart problems to bronchitis. That means more time is often lost before a correct diagnosis is made and treatment is further delayed. Often, by now, the cancer has reached stage 3 or 4.
Researchers have been working on tests that identify the biomarkers of mesothelioma in order to diagnose the disease earlier. For example, blood tests like the FDA-approved MESOMARK© assay scan an individual’s blood for soluble mesothelin-related peptide, a sure sign that the disease could be present or developing.
Once a diagnosis is made, doctors rely on these factors to determine a prognosis.
• Type of mesothelioma – pleural, pericardial, peritoneal, or testicular. This is determined by using imaging and biopsies
• The size of the tumor
• The location of the tumor and whether or not it can be treated surgically (is “resectable”)
• Which symptoms are present and the extent of those symptoms
• Whether the disease has spread to other areas of the body (metastases)
• The overall health of the individual – Many victims of the disease are older and already have a host of other medical problems with which they contend.
Survival rates for cancers of all types are usually measured by something called the 5-year survival rate. This is based on the number of people who are still alive five years after their diagnosis. This number is very low for meso patients. The American Cancer Society put it at about 5% to 10%. It’s not a very encouraging statistic.
While those who are diagnosed at a younger age do tend to live longer, the numbers are still grim, especially because the disease – in many cases – could have been avoided if employers had been more diligent about protecting their workers from asbestos exposure. Researchers continue to work hard towards developing new treatments for the disease, but there are still miles to go before the road ahead looks brighter.