Breakthroughs in research have led to treatment that extends life and improves the quality of life, but there is still no cure for mesothelioma. Ongoing clinical trials raise hope that a mesothelioma cure is on the horizon.
Medically Reviewed By:
Patricia Shelton, M.D.
Medically Reviewed By:Patricia Shelton, M.D.
A mesothelioma diagnosis is devastating because this cancer is aggressive, hard to treat, and often diagnosed at a late stage. Fortunately, innovative researchers have refused to give up the search for a cure, and mesothelioma survival stories inspire mesothelioma patients, family members, and physicians to hold onto hope for a cure.
Is mesothelioma curable?
There is currently no known cure for mesothelioma. The focus of mesothelioma treatment is to extend life and manage symptoms. In extremely rare cases, patients have experienced remission for extended periods. While these stories are inspiring, they should not be relied upon to determine a prognosis.
Mesothelioma Treatment Options
Surgical tumor removal is known as resection. According to the American Cancer Society, even if a surgeon removes all the visible tumors, some cancer cells are often left behind. These will likely continue to grow and spread. Surgery is generally only an option in the early stages of mesothelioma before it has spread.
While surgery may extend life, it generally does not cure mesothelioma. The average life expectancy of pleural mesothelioma following surgery is 22.5 months. Without treatment, the average life expectancy of pleural mesothelioma is 10 months. Surgical options include:
- Extrapleural pneumonectomy: removal of an entire lung along with adjacent tissues
- Pleurectomy/decortication: removal of the lining around the lung
- Extended pleurectomy/decortication: removal of the lining around the lung and heart, along with removal of part of the diaphragm
- Debulking: removal of as many visible tumors as possible
Chemotherapy for Mesothelioma
Systemic chemotherapy can produce long-term cancer-free survival for many types of cancers. Unfortunately, in most mesothelioma cases, it merely slows the spread of the cancer. For example, in one study, chemotherapy was found to extend the life expectancy in pleural mesothelioma patients from 6.5 to 16.8 months.
The overall five-year survival of patients with peritoneal mesothelioma is as high as 44 percent when a heated solution of chemotherapy drugs is applied inside the abdomen during surgery. This procedure is known as hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy. Researchers are studying a similar pleural mesothelioma treatment involving the application of heated chemotherapy drugs inside the chest cavity.
Immunotherapy for Mesothelioma
Immunotherapy stimulates the body’s immune system to fight cancer. The FDA has approved two different immunotherapy options for use in certain patients with mesothelioma. One treatment is called KEYTRUDA, and the other involves using two drugs called OPDIVO and YERVOY.
In addition, numerous immunotherapy drugs have shown promise in clinical trials, and more immunotherapy treatment options for mesothelioma will likely become available in the future.
Radiation therapy is a targeted therapy used to shrink individual tumors. It is generally used to augment surgery and systemic therapies. Though radiotherapy is not itself a cure, it may offer a small increase in life expectancy. It may also reduce symptoms caused by a tumor pressing on structures like nerves, bones, and internal organs.
Multimodal treatment uses a mix of therapeutic approaches. This approach generally involves a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy. It may also include novel therapies such as photodynamic therapy.
According to a 2021 study, multimodal treatment increases survival in pleural mesothelioma patients from 10 months to 32 months—10 months longer than chemotherapy alone. Multimodal treatment is very commonly used for treating mesothelioma. In the future, a mesothelioma cure may involve some form of multimodal treatment.
Is remission the same thing as a cure?
According to the American Cancer Society, remission is not the same as a cure. In partial remission, the cancer shrinks but does not completely disappear. In complete remission, all signs and symptoms of cancer disappear, and medical testing cannot detect cancer cells.
If a cancer stays in remission long enough, it may be considered cured, meaning all traces of cancer are gone, and the disease is not expected to return. In many cases, determining whether a case is in complete remission or has been cured requires the passage of time. The more time passes, the greater the likelihood that the cancer will not recur and could be considered cured.
However, many doctors are reluctant to pronounce a particular case of cancer “cured.” They prefer to say it is “in long-term remission” because it is generally impossible to state definitively that the disease has no chance of returning.
Are there any survivors of mesothelioma?
Approximately 10 percent of mesothelioma patients live for five years or longer after diagnosis, according to the Abramson Cancer Center at Penn Medicine. This number is larger than 10 years ago and significantly larger than 20 to 30 years ago.
Only a small number of patients live as long as 10 years or more, and very few go into long-term remission. However, some patients have surprised physicians and lived without recurrence for many years. The underlying hope behind ongoing mesothelioma research is that these survival stories will become the rule rather than the exception. Here are some promising stories of patients who defied the odds.
Emily Ward was a retired nurse of 43 years who was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in 2012 at age 63. She underwent pleurectomy/decortication and chemotherapy targeted to her chest. When this failed to remove all the cancer, she underwent systemic chemotherapy to kill off the remaining cancer.
She experienced remission, but the cancer returned in 2014. She again underwent chemotherapy, but the side effects were too severe. She switched to immunotherapy and pain medication, and the disease subsided. In 2019, seven years after her diagnosis, Ward still enjoyed an active life at 70. She passed away in May of 2022, ten years after her diagnosis.
Paul Kraus was a holocaust survivor diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 1997 at 52, in an advanced stage after the disease had spread. Doctors initially misdiagnosed his condition as an umbilical hernia. His cancer was discovered when he underwent surgery intended to repair the hernia.
His physicians estimated his life expectancy at six months, but Paul Kraus is still alive in 2023—more than 25 years after his diagnosis. He is the longest-lived mesothelioma survivor documented. Kraus credits his survival to alternative medicine, diet and nutrition, and faith. He also survived prostate cancer and brain cancer after his mesothelioma diagnosis.
Heather Von St. James
Heather Von St. James was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma at age 36 while working as a hairstylist and caring for a newborn. She had experienced secondary asbestos exposure as a child when her father came home from his construction jobs covered in asbestos dust.
She underwent an extrapleural pneumonectomy, four chemotherapy sessions, and 30 radiation sessions. Her physicians had estimated her life expectancy at 15 months. However, she has now been cancer-free for more than 17 years.
Tamron Little was diagnosed with mesothelioma at age 21 while caring for a newborn son. She had been misdiagnosed with a fibroid tumor during her pregnancy. She underwent hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy. Her positive response to the therapy surprised her physicians. She is still alive more than 15 years later.
Anonymous Japanese Patient
The Journal of Medical Case Reports documented the case of a 61-year-old Japanese man diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. He refused invasive treatments, including surgery and radiotherapy. He instead underwent a single course of low-dose chemotherapy and three hyperthermia treatment sessions.
A mere month after treatment, a computed tomography (CT) scan revealed that he had no abdominal abnormalities. Six years later, medical evaluation, including a CT scan and a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, revealed that the man remained cancer-free.
Hyperthermia is a novel treatment modality that uses heat to kill cancer cells. This study showed a promising result, but more studies are needed before researchers can draw accurate conclusions regarding the effectiveness of hyperthermia therapy on mesothelioma.
What are the chances of surviving mesothelioma?
The prognosis for mesothelioma is generally poor with the current treatment options. The five-year survival rate for pleural mesothelioma is just 12 percent.
Peritoneal mesothelioma patients whose cancer has spread to the lymph nodes fare only slightly better, with a five-year survival of 18 percent. However, peritoneal mesothelioma patients have an 82.5 percent five-year survival rate if the condition is diagnosed before the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.
Pericardial mesothelioma patients rarely live longer than six months, but this condition is extremely rare. Testicular mesothelioma patients have an overall five-year survival rate of 49 percent.
Mesothelioma as a Chronic Condition
One prominent mesothelioma doctor and researcher, Dr. Robert Cameron of Los Angeles, treats mesothelioma as a chronic condition that requires management, like diabetes or high blood pressure, rather than trying to cure it. He considers surgery the “bedrock of treating mesothelioma.”
He is considered a pioneer in mesothelioma treatment, especially regarding the surgical procedure known as pleurectomy/decortication. He performs this surgery with the anticipation that the cancer will return.
When it does, he uses conventional and novel treatments to remove or shrink new tumors, including hyperthermia and cryoablation, a procedure using an extremely cold liquid to freeze and kill cancer cells.
The Search for a Mesothelioma Cure
Mesothelioma clinical trials are the key to finding a cure. Clinical trials test novel therapies for safety and efficacy. Mesothelioma patients may participate in these trials, providing them with additional treatment options while helping future mesothelioma patients find hope.
Clinical trials aim to discover effective diagnostic and therapeutic approaches to mesothelioma. Ongoing current mesothelioma clinical trials evaluate:
- Biomarkers that could assist with determining prognosis
- Immunotherapy treatments
- Various multimodal approaches
- Chemotherapy drugs
- The use of MRI to diagnose peritoneal mesothelioma
- Mesothelioma vaccines
- Magnesium to prevent kidney damage during mesothelioma treatment
- Photodynamic therapy
- Novel drugs
- Immune cells from donated umbilical cord blood
Participation in clinical trials is generally based on strict criteria and may result in additional risks with or without additional benefits. The decision to participate in such a trial should be carefully weighed during candid conversations with a qualified physician.
Coping With Mesothelioma
The onset of mesothelioma is life-altering due to a reduced life expectancy, painful symptoms, emotional distress, and treatment side effects. You may find yourself vacillating between hope and feelings of doom. Though you cannot prevent your condition from progressing, you may be able to minimize symptoms and experience a reasonable quality of life.
Palliative Care Options
Palliative care focuses on improving the patient’s quality of life rather than attempting to extend life. Palliative care includes direct symptom relief measures such as medication. It may also involve treatments traditionally used in curative approaches, such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. The palliative care approach employs these methods to shrink tumors and reduce symptoms like pain.
Palliative care focuses on the whole patient rather than just the disease. It includes supporting overall physical and psychological health and may include any or all of the following:
- Supplemental oxygen
- Diet and nutrition support
- Vitamins and supplements
- Mental health counseling
- Treatment for depression and anxiety
- Spiritual support
Some mesothelioma treatment centers also offer support to family members and caregivers.
Hospice care is specialized end-of-life palliative care generally offered only to patients with an estimated life expectancy of fewer than six months. Patients in hospice care often have more options for managing pain and other symptoms, like shortness of breath.
Hospice care has proven to increase the quality of life, reduce the odds of dying in a hospital, and even extend life, though that is not the goal of the treatment plan.
Resources and Support for Mesothelioma
Any cancer diagnosis can cause severe distress, but mesothelioma patients may feel especially alone in light of the rarity of this condition. Fortunately, numerous mesothelioma resources are available to patients, families, and caregivers, including:
- Support groups
- One-on-one support
- Mesothelioma conferences
- Educational resources
- Respite care for caregivers
- Transportation assistance
These types of support can help you feel less alone while coping with your illness. They can also help you identify additional resources specific to your situation as you interact with people experiencing similar challenges.
Financial Compensation for Mesothelioma
Financial compensation for mesothelioma can provide the resources necessary to access the treatment of your choice, including services such as in-home care. It can also provide financial security for you and your family. You may be entitled to significant compensation through the following:
- A mesothelioma lawsuit
- An asbestos trust fund claim
- Workers’ compensation
- VA disability compensation
- Social Security Disability
With more than 30 years of experience helping mesothelioma patients recover billions of dollars in compensation, our mesothelioma lawyers at The Lanier Law Firm have seen firsthand the toll a mesothelioma diagnosis takes on patients and their loved ones.
While financial compensation cannot reverse a diagnosis, it can provide significant relief and a sense of justice as we continue to hope for a cure. Contact us today for a free consultation.