Written by: Karen Ritter, RN BSN
Treatment from an experienced medical team can extend a mesothelioma patient’s life by multiple years. In some cases, medical care helped people live for a decade longer than expected. The top options are surgery, chemotherapy and immunotherapy.
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Important Facts About Mesothelioma Treatment
- The best approach in most mesothelioma cases is multimodal treatment. This means doctors use a combination of different therapies, such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy.
- Surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, tumor treating fields and radiation are the primary options for mesothelioma. Other emerging options include virotherapy, gene therapy and proton radiation therapy.
- Optune Lua (NovoTTF-100L) received FDA approval in May 2019 for cases where surgery isn’t an option. It’s a wearable tumor treating fields device sending electrical waves through the chest.
- Two immunotherapy drugs (Opdivo and Yervoy) were approved as a pair in October 2020 for unresectable cases.
What Are the Top Options for Treatment?
Mesothelioma is treated with drugs, targeted therapies and surgery. Most options for mesothelioma are still investigational. While many aren’t yet approved by the FDA, we’ve listed them for informational purposes to help the reader.
Most doctors rely on surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation as the main options for medical care. There are various types of each.
Doctors prefer to use a combination of these. There’s growing belief in immunotherapy as a substitute for chemotherapy. Another emerging and effective option is tumor treating fields, which is approved when surgery isn’t an option.
Mesothelioma can be treated, although there is no cure for the asbestos cancer. The immediate goal is to remove as much of the cancer as possible and control the disease. Many believe the medical intent is to make mesothelioma a chronic illness patients live with for the remainder of their life.
What Treatments Are Approved for Mesothelioma?
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved three therapies for malignant mesothelioma:
- Chemotherapy (pemetrexed and cisplatin)
- Tumor treating fields (Optune Lua)
- Immunotherapy (Opdivo and Yervoy together, or Keytruda in very specific cases)
Surgery and radiation are allowed on an experimental basis and usually in combination with chemotherapy or immunotherapy.
How to Get Treatment for Mesothelioma
There are three major steps mesothelioma patients should follow for how to receive treatment:
See a specialist for mesothelioma. Rather than seeing a general oncologist, you should reach out to an experienced mesothelioma oncologist or surgeon. They’re more likely to utilize the latest novel treatments.
Do your research into different options. Surgery is usually at the top of the list because it’s the quickest way to take out the cancer. However, not all patients are healthy enough for surgery, or the cancer is too advanced. Chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy are other options.
Speak to a patient advocate about financial assistance. Cancer treatment can be expensive, even enough to drain your savings or retirement account. If you’re going to a distant cancer center, you’ll also have travel costs. Patient advocates can provide information on travel grants, decreased lodging and other options.
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Including Cell Type
There are three aggressive malignant mesothelioma surgeries. Your type of mesothelioma will dictate which surgery you can have. Your choice in doctor may also determine which surgery you have.
For pleural mesothelioma, the surgery choices are:
- Pleurectomy with decortication
- Extrapleural pneumonectomy
For peritoneal mesothelioma, patients have cytoreduction with heated/hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC).
Some patients cannot have surgery because their cancer is too widespread in the body. Noninvasive surgery can reduce pain and symptoms. These operations won’t considerably extend survival time but can improve quality of life in the patient’s final months.
Pleurectomy With Decortication (P/D)
Pleurectomy with decortication is a fairly new surgery for pleural mesothelioma. The operation removes the pleura, which is a slim lining between your chest wall and lung cavity. Pleural mesothelioma forms here when asbestos fibers irritate the lining’s cell walls.
By removing the pleura, surgeons can resect a large chunk of tumor. Some may exist on or near the diaphragm and pericardium (sac around your heart). Radical P/D would remove these two areas.
Boosted by chemotherapy and radiation, P/D has shown survival times of 2-3 years. Some specialized centers offer heated intraoperative chemotherapy (HIOC) to kill as many remaining tumor cells as possible after surgery.
Extrapleural Pneumonectomy (EPP)
Extrapleural pneumonectomy is the most aggressive pleural mesothelioma surgery. It removes the pleura, which harbors the cancer, as well as the nearest lung. Surgeons may also take out the diaphragm and pericardium. Similarly to P/D, some cancer centers offer heated intraoperative chemotherapy to kill remaining tumors after surgery is complete.
Doctors are cautious about performing EPP on patients. There is an increased risk of complications with this surgery.
Quality of life is another concern. Patients also may not be healthy enough to live comfortably with just one lung.
Despite these cautions, EPP has a median survival of around 18 months. Chemotherapy and radiation can boost survival chances.
Cytoreduction With HIPEC
Cytoreduction is a debulking surgery. It involves physical removal of tumors.
Part of cytoreductive surgery for peritoneal mesothelioma involves a peritonectomy, which is removal of the peritoneum. This is the thin tissue and fluid lining that surrounds the abdominal cavity. The peritoneum is where peritoneal mesothelioma forms.
HIPEC is a form of heated intraoperative chemotherapy. It’s used immediately after cytoreduction/peritonectomy.
Doctors insert a hot liquid form of the cancer therapy into the belly. This bathes the abdominal cavity in chemotherapy. The intent is to kill any remaining tumors.
One study for cytoreduction with HIPEC showed a median survival time of 38 months. The two-year survival rate is an impressive 70%.
There is at least one noninvasive, pain-relief surgery for each type of mesothelioma. The purpose is to drain the disease site of excess fluid. This relieves pressure against the lungs, chest, stomach or abdominal cavity organs. These palliative procedures are for patients with late-stage mesothelioma.
A thoracentesis, for pleural mesothelioma, removes excess fluid from the pleural space in the chest. A paracentesis, for peritoneal mesothelioma, removes fluid from the peritoneal space in the belly.
When patients need fluid removed often, an indwelling catheter can drain the fluid several times a week at home.
Chemotherapy is a well-known cancer treatment. The therapy is a drug or combination of drugs that look to kill cancer cells.
For mesothelioma, the two FDA-approved chemotherapy drugs are pemetrexed and cisplatin. The FDA allows carboplatin as a substitute for cisplatin.
Other chemotherapy drugs used experimentally for mesothelioma are:
There are several types of chemotherapy. The main differences are how doctors deliver these drugs into the body.
Systemic (Intravenous) Chemotherapy
The most well-known type of chemotherapy is systemic or intravenous chemotherapy, which travels through the bloodstream. Doctors inject the therapy through an IV into the bloodstream. The drugs travel from the injection site to the tumor location.
Systemic chemotherapy is associated with side effects like nausea, fatigue and decreased appetite. The drugs may attack healthy blood cells during the travel through the bloodstream. This can affect patients’ strength and make them feel sick.
Hyperthermic Intraoperative Chemotherapy
Hyperthermic intraoperative chemotherapy, shortened to the acronym HIOC, is another type. Doctors apply chemotherapy directly into the tumor site immediately after surgery.
Doctors use the incision from surgery to deliver hot chemotherapy drugs into the location. The drugs are in liquid form, and for mesothelioma care, the doctors rock the patient back and forth to bathe the area (thorax or abdomen) in the therapy.
HIOC is paired with an aggressive surgery, such as P/D for pleural mesothelioma or cytoreduction/peritonectomy for peritoneal mesothelioma.
Dwell chemotherapy combines different aspects of systemic and intraoperative chemotherapy.
The method sends the drugs through two catheters inserted into the target area. This utilizes aspects of intraoperative chemotherapy.
The drugs remain in the patient’s body for multiple days, exposing tumors to the drugs for an extended amount of time. This is similar to systemic chemotherapy.
Mesothelioma Radiation Therapy
Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy, delivers high-energy radiation particles at tumors. Doctors use a linear accelerator to send the beams into the body.
Radiation particles disrupt the cancer cells’ DNA and prevent cell division. Eventually, the cells die without further replicating, which can lead to controlling or even eliminating the disease.
Radiation is used for pleural mesothelioma either before or after surgery and chemotherapy. It’s not used for peritoneal mesothelioma due to the organs in the abdominal cavity.
Therapeutic advancements led to new types of radiation therapy. The newest types of radiation are more targeted, reducing the potential damage to healthy tissue.
Mesothelioma doesn’t grow as one distinct tumor but rather many separate tumors. Radiation has many smaller targets rather than one large target, which can lead to hitting healthy tissue with the beams.
Photon (Traditional) Radiation Therapy
Photon radiation therapy is often called external beam radiation. Doctors send photon beams into the disease site.
Photon radiation has the highest risk of affecting healthy tissue.
Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy
Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is an advancement of photon radiation. IMRT uses computer programs to send targeted beams at the tumor site from different angles.
This approach reduces damage to healthy tissue and allows for higher doses of radiation particles. In one study, less than 10% of patients had grade 3 or worse lung tissue inflammation (pneumonitis) after IMRT for mesothelioma. Traditional photon radiation has rates up to 25%.
Proton Radiation Therapy
Proton radiation is another advancement to reduce healthy tissue damage and increase doses. This method was created in the 1940s but grew in popularity during the 1990s.
The proton beams stop at the intended target: the tumors. In one study, only 5% of patients had grade 3 pneumonitis. Nearly 90% of patients avoided any mild or severe complications.
Intraoperative Radiation Therapy
Intraoperative radiation therapy, shortened to the acronym IORT, sends radiation into the tumor location quickly after surgery. The purpose is similar to intraoperative chemotherapy.
External beam radiation, like systemic chemotherapy, has side effects. IORT lets doctors use higher doses while avoiding damage to skin or healthy tissue. The distance between the linear accelerator machine and tumor site is much smaller. This keeps the beam’s range tighter.
Tumor Treating Fields for Mesothelioma
Tumor treating fields work similarly to radiation therapy. The fields are electric waves sent through the body. These waves disrupt cell division and prevent replication. Eventually tumor cells die without replicating.
Tumor treating fields help unresectable cases of malignant mesothelioma. “Unresectable” means the disease isn’t treatable with surgery.
The FDA approved the NovoTTF-100L System in May 2019 for unresectable cases of pleural mesothelioma. Unresectable cases usually have low survival rates.
The FDA approved NovoTTF-100L with chemotherapy based on the STELLAR clinical trial. The survival rate was around 18 months with these two therapies. This was an improvement of around four months for these patients.
The manufacturer of NovoTTF-100L, Novocure, rebranded the device as “Optune Lua” in 2020. The therapy is offered at more than 70 hospitals spanning 30-plus states.
Immunotherapy boosts the immune system to fight back against mesothelioma and other cancers. Mesothelioma has qualities that subdue the immune system, which either ignores the tumors or isn’t naturally strong enough to stop its spread.
Immunotherapy activates the immune system in various ways:
- Blocking immune-suppressing proteins on cancer cells
- Inspiring an immune system reaction by mimicking a virus
- Redesigning immune system T-cells to fight mesothelioma
Opdivo and Yervoy
The FDA approved Opdivo and Yervoy for malignant mesothelioma in October 2020. Opdivo is the brand name for the generic immunotherapy drug nivolumab. Yervoy is the brand name for ipilimumab. They are approved for unresectable cases of pleural mesothelioma.
Opdivo and Yervoy are both immune checkpoint inhibitors. They block a connection between mesothelioma cells and T-cells that depresses the immune system.
Opdivo and Yervoy improved survival rates for pleural mesothelioma cases by around four months:
- 18 months for Opdivo and Yervoy together
- 14 months for chemotherapy
Keytruda is the brand name for pembrolizumab. It is another immunotherapy drug for mesothelioma. The FDA approved Keytruda during 2020 for specific cases of pleural mesothelioma.
The therapy is specifically for patients with a high count of the cancerous PD-L1 protein.
Multimodal Therapy for Mesothelioma
Multimodal treatment means using multiple types of therapy. The most common multimodal care for mesothelioma is a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
Numerous studies have involved a multimodal approach: some combination of surgery, radiation, immunotherapy and chemotherapy. The median survival times are as high as three years, with some patients surviving for more than five years.
Emerging Treatment Options
Researchers and medical experts continue to consider new therapies for mesothelioma. A few show promise for improving life expectancy.
A few of the emerging options are:
- Gene therapy
- Photodynamic therapy
Mesothelioma Gene Therapy
Gene therapy slows the cancer’s growth by fixing or disrupting the cancer cells’ DNA. There are a few approaches to gene therapy, each with its own proven benefits:
- Blocking cancerous genes from allowing mesothelioma to grow
- Adding cancer-fighting genes to the body
- Fixing mutated genes
Virotherapy delivers a genetically modified virus into the tumor location. The intent is to ignore healthy cells and tissue while focusing on tumors.
Virotherapy may involve sending a virus to kill a tumor. This is called an “oncolytic virus.” An example of this therapy is ONCOS-102, which is a virus that breaks up tumor cells. The virus also elicits an immune response.
Other virotherapy drugs act as vehicles transporting immunotherapy or gene therapy drugs into the body. These viruses usually deactivate after delivering the other therapy.
Mesothelioma Photodynamic Therapy
Photodynamic therapy uses light-sensitive drugs, called photosensitizers, to kill cancer cells internally. The cells absorb the drugs as part of their growth and expansion.
Once absorbed, the photosensitizers activate when doctors shine a high-beam light at them. This therapy is only featured in a few clinical studies.
Stories of Treatment Helping Patients
Treatment extends the lives of mesothelioma patients regularly. A few cases resulted in long-term survival well beyond the initial prognosis.
Alexis K., for instance, has survived for more than a decade with peritoneal mesothelioma. She underwent cytoreduction with HIPEC a few months after her diagnosis. Alexis remains a mesothelioma survivor today.
Jodi Page was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in December 1999, more than 20 years ago. She underwent EPP surgery, removing her left lung completely, and is a prime example of how aggressive therapy can help.
Get Connected with Clinical Trials
Improve your prognosis and the likelihood of beating mesothelioma through clinical trials.
One of the best ways to improve your prognosis and the likelihood of beating mesothelioma is through clinical trials.
Clinical trials can provide:
- Exclusive access to promising new procedures
- One-on-one care from leading mesothelioma specialists
- Alternative options for patients who have exhausted traditional treatments
Common Questions About Mesothelioma Treatment
Can mesothelioma be treated?
While there is no cure for mesothelioma, a number of therapies have prolonged patients’ lives. Surgery has the most significant benefit, often extending survival by multiple years. Doctors remove tumors by taking out the part of the body where they’ve formed or spread to. Chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy are additional treatment options.
How do you treat pleural mesothelioma?
Pleural mesothelioma has two surgical options for curative intent: extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP) and pleurectomy with decortication (P/D). EPP is a more aggressive operation, removing the pleura (where this cancer forms) plus the affected lung. P/D spares the lung, focusing mostly on the pleura. Other options are chemotherapy, radiation, tumor treating fields and immunotherapy.
What are the ways to treat peritoneal mesothelioma?
The primary method to treat peritoneal mesothelioma is cytoreductive surgery followed by a heated form of chemotherapy. This combination is called cytoreduction with hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC). Doctors wash the abdomen with a liquid chemotherapy cocktail to quickly kill microscopic tumors. Standard intravenous chemotherapy is another option.
What are some of the emerging therapies to improve survival rates for mesothelioma?
What are the treatment options if your disease is too advanced for aggressive surgery?
A lot of people with mesothelioma don’t learn of their disease until it’s already in stage 3 or stage 4. At this time, curative surgery or other therapies might not be possible. For these cases, doctors use pain-relief treatment to drain fluid, relieve tumor tension against body parts, and reduce symptom discomfort.
Sources & Author
- Extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP) vs. pleurectomy decortication (P/D). Annals of Translational Medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5497106/. Accessed: 12/07/2020.
- Predictors and Outcomes of Surgery in Peritoneal Mesothelioma: An Analysis of 2000 Patients From the National Cancer Database. Annals of Surgical Oncology. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32006127/. Accessed: 07/08/2020.
- Chemotherapy for Malignant Mesothelioma. American Cancer Society. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/malignant-mesothelioma/treating/chemotherapy.html. Accessed: 02/09/2021.
- Malignant pleural mesothelioma: adjuvant therapy with radiation therapy. Annals of Translational Medicine. Retrieved from:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5497112/. Accessed: 02/28/2020.
- Consensus Statement on Proton Therapy in Mesothelioma. Practical Radiation Oncology. Retrieved from:
https://www.practicalradonc.org/article/S1879-8500(20)30117-X/pdf. Accessed: 06/10/2020.
- What Is IMRT? Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Retrieved from: https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/diagnosis-treatment/cancer-treatments/radiation-therapy/what-imrt. Accessed: 02/09/2021.
- Intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/intraoperative-radiation-therapy/about/pac-20385150. Accessed: 02/09/2021.