Straight Talk about Mesothelioma, a blog series created by Michael T. Milano, M.D., Ph.D., a radiation oncology specialist, as a resource for mesothelioma patients and their loved ones.
For many people, being diagnosed with mesothelioma can feel like a death sentence. The rare and deadly cancer is caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos. It is aggressive in the speed and manner by which it spreads through the lining of the lungs and heart. Mesothelioma usually forms as a “sheet” rather than a single lump or tumor, making it especially difficult for doctors to treat surgically.
68-year-old Mary Kuntz was diagnosed with mesothelioma in the summer of 2014. She chose to share her story through CBS in the hopes of helping others. She recalled a time, several decades prior, when workers removed asbestos from the ceiling of a room she often used. It’s likely that she was exposed to free floating asbestos particles during this period. Mesothelioma is so dangerous because a person need only inhale 1 asbestos fiber to develop the disease.
There are only a few medical centers, mainly located in the U.S., equipped with the technology and expertise needed to perform the state-of-the-art procedures that extend patients’ lives. Most other treatment options simply ease symptoms and allow patients a level of comfort as the disease progresses.
Fortunately for Kuntz, and maybe for future mesothelioma patients, medical science is always advancing Doctors at the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN asked her if she would participate in the trial of an experimental new treatment called cryotherapy. Though hesitant, Kuntz agreed.
Medical Science Opens New Doors
“My initial thoughts were, ‘Mmm, this might be a little risky,” Kuntz said of the treatment.
Despite her initial fears, Kuntz showed great bravery and went along with the treatment. Doctors sprayed liquid nitrogen on parts of Mary Kuntz’s tumor to freeze it and 2 weeks later, surgically removed it. As Dr. Shanda Blackmon explained, freezing the tumor triggers the body’s immune system to fight the remaining cancer cells.
“This is the early explorative stage where we’re just looking at what this is doing to the body, how it is stimulating the immune response,” Dr. Blackmon explained.
The trial began in July of 2015 and is expected to run until January of 2017. Doctors spray a small area of the tumor with liquid nitrogen 2 to 3 times, freezing it and allowing it to thaw. After the freezing process, doctors remove the tumor and continue to take blood tests and biopsies.
It will take time for doctors to determine whether or not the treatment has worked, but in the meantime Kuntz has been basking in the support of her family.
Cryotherapy is an exciting and hopeful new innovation in medicine. It is much less invasive than the other available surgeries and doesn’t require the removal of a patient’s lungs, which in turn increases the chance of survival and recovery.
“It is less toxic and requires less aggressive surgery afterwards,” said Dr. Tobias Peikert, a pulmonologist at the Mayo Clinic.
A Cause for Hope
While it’s still early in the clinical trial, this treatment could be a huge advancement in the way mesothelioma is treated. If it is successful, it could provide a great source of hope for thousands of mesothelioma patients in the United States.
Like so many working-class mesothelioma sufferers, Mary Kuntz is not selfish. When her loved ones rallied around her and made her a “love chain”—a paper chain with an inspiring message written on each link – she could only think of all of the other mesothelioma patients around the country.
“Why should they be, you know, sending all this love to me? There’s a lot of people that have a lot of problems,” a tearful Kuntz told a local news station.
The 68-year-old grandmother went on to explain that she only hopes that by participating in the trial she can help others in the future.