Malignant Mesothelioma Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Patient Information [NCI]

This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

Malignant Mesothelioma Treatment

General Information About Malignant Mesothelioma

Malignant mesothelioma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the lining of the chest or abdomen.

Malignant mesothelioma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells are found in the pleura (the thin layer of tissue that lines the chest cavity and covers the lungs) or the peritoneum (the thin layer of tissue that lines the abdomen and covers most of the organs in the abdomen). This summary is about malignant mesothelioma of the pleura.
Respiratory anatomy; drawing shows right lung with upper, middle, and lower lobes; left lung with upper and lower lobes; and the trachea, bronchi, lymph nodes, and diaphragm. Inset shows bronchioles, alveoli, artery, and vein.
Anatomy of the respiratory system, showing the trachea and both lungs and their lobes and airways. Lymph nodes and the diaphragm are also shown. Oxygen is inhaled into the lungs and passes through the thin membranes of the alveoli and into the bloodstream (see inset).

Being exposed to asbestos can affect the risk of malignant mesothelioma.

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk to your doctor if you think you may be at risk.

Many people with malignant mesothelioma have worked or lived in places where they inhaled or swallowed asbestos. After being exposed to asbestos, it usually takes a long time for malignant mesothelioma to form. Other risk factors for malignant mesothelioma include the following:

  • Living with a person who works near asbestos.
  • Being exposed to a certain virus.

Possible signs of malignant mesothelioma include shortness of breath and pain under the rib cage.

Sometimes the cancer causes fluid to collect around the lung or in the abdomen. These symptoms may be caused by the fluid or malignant mesothelioma. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following problems:

  • Trouble breathing.
  • Pain under the rib cage.
  • Pain or swelling in the abdomen.
  • Lumps in the abdomen.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.

Tests that examine the inside of the chest and abdomen are used to detect (find) and diagnose malignant mesothelioma.

Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between malignant mesothelioma and lung cancer. The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient's health habits, exposure to asbestos, past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
    Chest x-ray; drawing shows the patient standing with her back to the x-ray machine. X-rays are used to take pictures of organs and bones of the chest. X-rays pass through the patient onto film.
    X-ray of the chest. X-rays are used to take pictures of organs and bones of the chest. X-rays pass through the patient onto film.
  • Complete blood count (CBC): A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following:
    • The number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
    • The amount of hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen) in the red blood cells.
    • The portion of the blood sample made up of red blood cells.
  • Sedimentation rate: A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the rate at which the red blood cells settle to the bottom of the test tube.
  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues from the pleura or peritoneum so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. Procedures used to collect the cells or tissues include the following:
    • Fine-needle (FNA) aspiration biopsy of the lung: The removal of tissue or fluid using a thin needle. An imaging procedure is used to locate the abnormal tissue or fluid in the lung. A small incision may be made in the skin where the biopsy needle is inserted into the abnormal tissue or fluid, and a sample is removed.
      Lung biopsy; drawing shows a patient lying on a table that slides through the computed tomography (CT) machine with an x-ray picture of a cross-section of the lung on a monitor above the patient. Drawing also shows a doctor using the x-ray picture to help place the biopsy needle through the chest wall and into the area of abnormal lung tissue. Inset shows a side view of the chest cavity and lungs with the biopsy needle inserted into the area of abnormal tissue.
      Fine-Needle Aspiration Biopsy of the Lung. The patient lies on a table that slides through the computed tomography (CT) machine, which takes x-ray pictures of the inside of the body. The x-ray pictures help the doctor see where the abnormal tissue is in the lung. A biopsy needle is inserted through the chest wall and into the area of abnormal lung tissue. A small piece of tissue is removed through the needle and checked under the microscope for signs of cancer.
    • Thoracoscopy: An incision (cut) is made between two ribs and a thoracoscope (a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing) is inserted into the chest.
    • Peritoneoscopy: An incision (cut) is made in the abdominal wall and a peritoneoscope (a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing) is inserted into the abdomen.
    • Laparotomy: An incision (cut) is made in the wall of the abdomen to check the inside of the abdomen for signs of disease.
    • Thoracotomy: An incision (cut) is made between two ribs to check inside the chest for signs of disease.
  • Bronchoscopy: A procedure to look inside the trachea and large airways in the lung for abnormal areas. A bronchoscope is inserted through the nose or mouth into the trachea and lungs. A bronchoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.
    Bronchoscopy; drawing shows a bronchoscope inserted through the mouth, trachea, and bronchus into the lung; lymph nodes along trachea and bronchi; and cancer in one lung. Inset shows patient lying on a table having a bronchoscopy.
    Bronchoscopy. A bronchoscope is inserted through the mouth, trachea, and major bronchi into the lung, to look for abnormal areas. A bronchoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a cutting tool. Tissue samples may be taken to be checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
  • Cytologic exam: An exam of cells under a microscope (by a pathologist) to check for anything abnormal. For mesothelioma, fluid is taken from around the lungs or from the abdomen. A pathologist checks the cells in the fluid.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer.
  • The size of the tumor.
  • Whether the tumor can be removed completely by surgery.
  • The amount of fluid in the chest or abdomen.
  • The patient's age and general health, including lung and heart health.
  • The type of mesothelioma cancer cells and how they look under a microscope.
  • Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back).

Stages of Malignant Mesothelioma

After malignant mesothelioma has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if cancer has spread outside the pleura or peritoneum is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the spread of the cancer in order to plan treatment. The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:

  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of the chest and abdomen, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of the chest or abdomen. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS): A procedure in which an endoscope is inserted into the body. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. A probe at the end of the endoscope is used to bounce high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. This procedure is also called endosonography. EUS may be used to guide fine-needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy of the lung, lymph nodes, or other areas.
    Endoscopic ultrasound-guided fine-needle aspiration biopsy; drawing shows an endoscope with an ultrasound probe and biopsy needle inserted through the mouth and into the esophagus. Drawing also shows lymph nodes near the esophagus and cancer in one lung. Inset shows the ultrasound probe locating the lymph nodes with cancer and the biopsy needle removing tissue from one of the lymph nodes near the esophagus.
    Endoscopic ultrasound-guided fine-needle aspiration biopsy. An endoscope that has an ultrasound probe and a biopsy needle is inserted through the mouth and into the esophagus. The probe bounces sound waves off body tissues to make echoes that form a sonogram (computer picture) of the lymph nodes near the esophagus. The sonogram helps the doctor see where to place the biopsy needle to remove tissue from the lymph nodes. This tissue is checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue. Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.
  • Through the lymph system. Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.
  • Through the blood. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

The following stages are used for malignant mesothelioma:

Stage I (Localized)

Stage I is divided into stages IA and IB:

  • In stage IA, cancer is found in one side of the chest in the lining of the chest wall and may also be found in the lining of the chest cavity between the lungs and/or the lining that covers the diaphragm. Cancer has not spread to the lining that covers the lung.
  • In stage IB, cancer is found in one side of the chest in the lining of the chest wall and the lining that covers the lung. Cancer may also be found in the lining of the chest cavity between the lungs and/or the lining that covers the diaphragm.

Stage II (Advanced)

In stage II, cancer is found in one side of the chest in the lining of the chest wall, the lining of the chest cavity between the lungs, the lining that covers the diaphragm, and the lining that covers the lung. Also, cancer has spread into one or both of the following:

  • Diaphragm muscle.
  • Lung.

Stage III (Advanced)

In stage III, either of the following is true:

Cancer is found in one side of the chest in the lining of the chest wall. Cancer may have spread to:

  • the lining of the chest cavity between the lungs;
  • the lining that covers the diaphragm;
  • the lining that covers the lung;
  • the diaphragm muscle;
  • the lung.

Cancer has spread to lymph nodes where the lung joins the bronchus, along the trachea and esophagus, between the lung and diaphragm, or below the trachea.

or

Cancer is found in one side of the chest in the lining of the chest wall, the lining of the chest cavity between the lungs, the lining that covers the diaphragm, and the lining that covers the lung. Cancer has spread into one or more of the following:

  • Tissue between the ribs and the lining of the chest wall.
  • Fat in the cavity between the lungs.
  • Soft tissues of the chest wall.
  • Sac that covers the heart.

Cancer may have spread to lymph nodes where the lung joins the bronchus, along the trachea and esophagus, between the lung and diaphragm, or below the trachea.

Stage IV (Advanced)

In stage IV, cancer cannot be removed by surgery and is found in one or both sides of the body. Cancer may have spread to lymph nodes anywhere in the chest or above the collarbone. Cancer has spread in one or more of the following ways:

  • Through the diaphragm into the peritoneum (the thin layer of tissue that lines the abdomen and covers most of the organs in the abdomen).
  • To the tissue lining the chest on the opposite side of the body as the tumor.
  • To the chest wall and may be found in the rib.
  • Into the organs in the center of the chest cavity.
  • Into the spine.
  • Into the sac around the heart or into the heart muscle.
  • To distant parts of the body such as the brain, spine, thyroid, or prostate.

Recurrent Malignant Mesothelioma

Recurrent malignant mesothelioma is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the chest or abdomen or in other parts of the body.

Treatment Option Overview

There are different types of treatment for patients with malignant mesothelioma.

Different types of treatments are available for patients with malignant mesothelioma. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Three types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery

The following surgical treatments may be used for malignant mesothelioma:

  • Wide local excision: Surgery to remove the cancer and some of the healthy tissue around it.
  • Pleurectomy and decortication: Surgery to remove part of the covering of the lungs and lining of the chest and part of the outside surface of the lungs.
  • Extrapleural pneumonectomy: Surgery to remove one whole lung and part of the lining of the chest, the diaphragm, and the lining of the sac around the heart.
  • Pleurodesis: A surgical procedure that uses chemicals or drugs to make a scar in the space between the layers of the pleura. Fluid is first drained from the space using a catheter or chest tube and the chemical or drug is put into the space. The scarring stops the build-up of fluid in the pleural cavity.

Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). Combination chemotherapy is the use of more than one anticancer drug. The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

See Drugs Approved for Malignant Mesothelioma for more information.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Biologic therapy

Biologic therapy is a treatment that uses the patient's immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. This type of cancer treatment is also called biotherapy or immunotherapy.

Hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy

Hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy is a type of regional chemotherapy being studied in the treatment of mesothelioma that has spread to the peritoneum (tissue that lines the abdomen and covers most of the organs in the abdomen). After the surgeon removes all the cancer that can be seen, a solution containing anticancer drugs is heated and pumped into and out of the abdomen to kill cancer cells that remain. Heating the anticancer drugs may kill more cancer cells.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests. This is sometimes called re-staging.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

Treatment Options for Malignant Mesothelioma

A link to a list of current clinical trials is included for each treatment section. For some types or stages of cancer, there may not be any trials listed. Check with your doctor for clinical trials that are not listed here but may be right for you.

Localized Malignant Mesothelioma (Stage I)

If the malignant mesothelioma is in one part of the chest lining, treatment will probably be surgery to remove the part of the chest lining with cancer and some of the tissue around it.

If localized malignant mesothelioma is found in more than one place in the chest, treatment may be one of the following:

  • Pleurectomy and decortication, with or without radiation therapy, as palliative therapy to relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life.
  • Extrapleural pneumonectomy.
  • Radiation therapy as palliative therapy to relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life.
  • A clinical trial of anticancer drugs placed directly into the chest after surgery to remove the tumor.
  • A clinical trial of combinations of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.
  • A clinical trial of a new treatment.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with localized malignant mesothelioma. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Advanced Malignant Mesothelioma (Stage II, Stage III, and Stage IV)

Treatment of advanced malignant mesothelioma may include the following:

  • Surgery to drain fluid that has collected in the chest, to reduce discomfort. Pleurodesis may be done to stop more fluid from collecting in the chest.
  • Pleurectomy and decortication, as palliative therapy to relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life.
  • Radiation therapy as palliative therapy to relieve pain.
  • Chemotherapy with one anticancer drug.
  • A clinical trial of regional chemotherapy after surgery to remove the tumor, for malignant mesothelioma that has spread to the peritoneum.
  • A clinical trial of combination chemotherapy.
  • A clinical trial of combinations of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.
  • A clinical trial of chemotherapy placed directly into the chest cavity or abdominal cavity to shrink the tumors and keep fluid from building up.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with advanced malignant mesothelioma. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Recurrent Malignant Mesothelioma

Treatment of recurrent malignant mesothelioma may include the following:

  • A clinical trial of biologic therapy.
  • A clinical trial of chemotherapy.
  • A clinical trial of surgery.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent malignant mesothelioma. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

To Learn More About Malignant Mesothelioma

For more information from the National Cancer Institute about malignant mesothelioma, see the following:

  • Malignant Mesothelioma Home Page
  • Drugs Approved for Malignant Mesothelioma
  • Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk

For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:

  • What You Need to Know About™ Cancer
  • Understanding Cancer Series: Cancer
  • Cancer Staging
  • Chemotherapy and You: Support for People With Cancer
  • Radiation Therapy and You: Support for People With Cancer
  • Coping with Cancer: Supportive and Palliative Care
  • Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Cancer
  • Cancer Library
  • Information For Survivors/Caregivers/Advocates

Changes to This Summary (03 / 15 / 2013)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Editorial changes were made to this summary.

About This PDQ Summary

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Purpose of This Summary

This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the treatment of malignant mesothelioma. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.

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Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") is the date of the most recent change.

The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board.

Clinical Trial Information

A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Clinical trials are listed in PDQ and can be found online at NCI's Web site. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

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National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Malignant Mesothelioma Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/malignantmesothelioma/patient. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.

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Last Revised: 2013-03-15


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