Mesothelioma is a malignant form of cancer that is caused by exposure to asbestos fibers. Most people who suffer from mesothelioma develop the disease after years of employment that involved working with or around asbestos, and in some cases it may take decades for symptoms of mesothelioma to show up. While there is no cure for malignant mesothelioma, a number of treatment methods -- especially when used in combination -- can be effective in managing the disease and prolonging life. (For more information on mesothelioma in general, check out Nolo's articles Mesothelioma: Symptoms and Causes of Asbestos Lung Disease and Mesothelioma Diagnosis and Screening Methods.)
This article looks at the different treatment options for patients who have developed mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure. Keep in mind that doctors who specialize in the treatment of mesothelioma patients typically use a combination of the therapies described below -- called a "multimodal" approach. Also remember that some of the treatment methods discussed below are in the experimental stages of development.
Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer medications (called cytotoxic drugs) and chemicals in an attempt to kill malignant mesothelioma cells. A number of different drugs have been developed and tried in mesothelioma patients over the years, but all have achieved only limited success, so chemotherapy is almost always used in combination with other treatment methods. Specific types of chemotherapy treatments for mesothelioma include Alimta (pemetrexed) and vinorelbine.
Radiotherapy (or radiation therapy) involves the use of localized and high-dose radiation to treat malignant mesothelioma tumors. Radiation therapy is almost always used in combination with other mesothelioma treatment methods, like surgery and chemotherapy, and isn't always an option if a tumor is very large or is situated close to vital organs.
Also called PDT, photodynamic therapy involves the use of a drug to sensitize cancerous cells to light, and then the utilization of fiber-optic cables to focus the right frequency of light on the cancerous growth. The sensitizing drug and the light work in concert to produce a toxic molecule that kills the cancerous cells. Like most mesothelioma treatment methods, photodynamic therapy is typically used in combination with other treatment techniques to achieve optimal results.
Angiogenesis is the medical term for the growth of blood vessels that nourish cells in the body, including cancer cells. Drugs called "angiogenesis inhibitors" are used to stop -- or at least slow down -- the angiogenesis of cancer cells and, in effect, starve tumors in mesothelioma patients. A number of experimental anti-angiogenesis drugs are currently in development and evaluation, including endostatin, combrestatin, angiostatin, and thrombospondin.
Immunotherapy and Gene Therapy
This kind of treatment tries to boost the mesothelioma patient's immune system and their ability to fight off cancerous cells, while stemming the harshest effects of the disease.
In gene therapy, which is a new treatment technique still in development, a gene is delivered directly into the cancerous growth in order to allow drugs to do the work of destroying cancerous cells. This treatment carries some risk, but the idea is to target the tumor itself while leaving healthy cells unharmed (unlike chemotherapy, which kills both cancerous and healthy cells).
Another immunotherapy treatment method for mesothelioma involves the use of small proteins (called cytokines) that occur naturally in the human body. Some of this work is still in the experimental stages, but cytokine protein molecules called interferons and interleukins may be used to successfully block or stunt the growth of malignant cancer cells.
Sometimes surgery can be effective in providing relief from symptoms of mesothelioma, and removal of most of a cancerous growth is possible in some instances. But surgery may not be an effective option (or may not be an option at all) in some cases, especially when a malignant mesothelioma tumor is situated close to a vital organ.
For surgical treatment of pleural mesothelioma (found in the lining of the chest cavity and lungs), there are usually two options: extra-pleural pneumonectomy (EPP) and pleurectomy/decortications. Both procedures involve surgical removal of the pleura, the thin membrane surrounding the lungs and chest cavity, but EPP also involves the removal of the entire lung that is involved with the tumor.
Mesothelioma and Asbestos Exposure: Getting Help
If you're concerned about mesothelioma because you or a loved one have been exposed to high levels of asbestos on the job, or if you want to protect your legal rights in the wake of a mesothelioma diagnosis, you may want to talk to an experienced attorney.
Find out more about finding and working with an asbestos attorney, as well as what to expect in a lawsuit over asbestos exposure, in Nolo's articles How to Hire a Mesothelioma or Asbestos Lawyer and Asbestos and Mesothelioma Lawsuits: What to Expect. When you're ready to talk to an attorney about your case, you can use Nolo's trusted Lawyer Directory to find an experienced mesothelioma-asbestos attorney who can help you.