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.

Once patients diagnosed with mesothelioma begin to understand the seriousness of their illness, they invariably ask the question: What is my life expectancy? It is a difficult question, with an equally difficult answer.

Until recently, the answer would have been a devastating one. The truth is, by the time someone is diagnosed with mesothelioma it is often at a very advanced stage, and long-term survival rates are low. Some studies show the average survival time of between just 4 and 18 months. The American Cancer Society puts the 5-year survival rate at between 5% and 10%. That can be difficult news for a patient to process.

We are Making Progress against this Deadly Cancer

As grim as the statistics are, they are slowly improving, in large part because of advances in our ability to detect the disease earlier. Bear in mind that the survival rates being reported now are based on patients who were treated several years ago. New treatments could result in better outcomes for those patients just now being diagnosed with the disease.

An individual’s survival time will vary depending on several factors, such as the person’s age and overall health, the stage of the tumor, the microscopic classification of the tumor (histology and grade) and whether or not surgery is an option. We know that a patient’s prognosis, or outlook, can markedly improve if the cancer is caught early, and if surgery can be performed to remove as much of the tumor as possible.

As medical professionals, we are still learning about how best to treat this aggressive disease. As I’ve addressed in previous posts, research and clinical trials are ongoing at some of the leading medical centers in the country. Those patients able to meet the criteria for participating in a clinical trial will have the satisfaction of knowing they’re getting leading-edge treatment, and helping to further doctors’ understanding of how best to treat mesothelioma. While it can be tough to tell patients that there is no known cure yet, our hope is that, in time, there will be.

Next article in this series: “Will My Pain Be Manageable?”