Surgery for mesothelioma is performed either to fight the disease by removing tumors or for palliative purposes to relieve symptoms. If the tumors are confined to one location and the patient is in good overall health, surgery to remove the cancer may be attempted. This might involve removing all or part of the membrane lining the chest or abdomen. More aggressive surgery could involve complete removal of the lung and possible partial removal of the diaphragm, pericardium, and parietal pleura (the membranes surrounding the heart and abdominal cavity).
If the cancer has spread to more than one location and cannot be removed, palliative surgery might be performed to relieve pain and breathing difficulties. Symptoms such as breathlessness caused by fluid accumulation in the chest can also be relieved by using a needle to drain off the fluid. Similar treatment methods are available for mesothelioma in the abdominal cavity.
In chemotherapy, drugs are used to kill cancer cells or stop them from reproducing. The drugs may be delivered in pill form or by injection. These drugs circulate through the bloodstream, killing cancer cells in all areas of the body. Unfortunately, chemotherapy can also kill healthy cells, resulting in serious side effects. Chemotherapy may involve various types and combinations of drugs and is often used in conjunction with surgery, particularly when cancer has spread beyond its initial location.
Radiation therapy employs high-energy radiation (X-rays) to target and kill cancer cells in localized areas of the body. Radiation injures cells so they can no longer divide and multiply, killing the cells and causing the tumors to shrink. However, radiation treatment also damages healthy cells, which can result in serious side effects. These healthy cells generally recover once treatment stops. Radiation therapy is delivered either externally, in much the same way as X-rays of broken bones are taken, or internally in the form of a radioactive implant placed inside the tumor. Radiation may be used as the primary treatment for mesothelioma, particularly for patients unable to undergo surgery, or in combination with other treatment methods.
As one of the most treatment resistant cancers, mesothelioma is the subject of much active research into new and alternative treatment methods. Experimental treatments represent a critical step towards controlling and curing this deadly disease. Some of the most promising treatments currently under research include:
- Photodynamic Therapy: combines a photosensitizing agent (light activated drug) with a fixed-frequency laser light to target and destroy cancer cells. The drug is believed to accumulate primarily in cancer cells, reacting chemically when exposed to the laser and killing malignant cells.
- Gene Therapy: seeks to either repair the DNA of malfunctioning, cancerous cells or reprogram that DNA so the cell is more vulnerable to drug treatment. This is accomplished by injecting a modified gene directly into the patient’s chest or abdominal region. Genes can be delivered using patient cells modified outside the body or by a disabled virus that carries the genes directly to cancer cells.
- Immunotherapy: seeks to use the body’s own defenses to fight cancer cells. A wide variety of immunotherapy treatments are currently being researched to help the body recognize cancer cells and improve the immune system’s response to those cells. These treatments include antibody therapy and various cancer vaccines.