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.
Following diagnosis of lung cancer or mesothelioma, most patients are overwhelmed with questions and concerns. But for some, understanding the prognosis is a start. “How long do I have?” is often among the first of these questions.
It is important to understand what is meant by survival rate. This statistic represents the percentage of people who survive cancer for a specific amount of time beyond the initial diagnosis. Usually, cancer statistics are reported as 2-year and 5-year survival rates. Doctors may also tell patients “median survival” numbers, which represent the time (in months or years) in which half of the patients, diagnosed with a specific cancer, are alive.
Survival outcomes are based on data gathered from thousands of cases, and depend on several variables such as general health and functional status, treatment, gender, race, and age. The numbers can be confusing or discouraging, but doctors use survival rates as a vital tool for developing treatment plans and managing expectations for the future. So, with which disease does the future look more promising?
The median survival rate for lung cancer depends on the stage (I, II, III and IV) and type (non-small cell or small cell), and ranges from a few months (for metastatic cancer) to years (for Stage I lung cancer). Doctors can provide more accurate estimations based on the specific type of cancer.
Early-stage lung cancer patients have a 5-year survival rate of roughly 50 percent – in other words, about half of patients live for at least 5 years after diagnosis. For late-stage lung cancer affecting other areas of the body, the 5-year survival rate is less than 5% percent. While the prognosis for metastatic lung cancer is poor, some patients who respond well to some of the newer drugs can survive many years.
Contrary to popular belief, mesothelioma (a cancer caused exclusively by asbestos) is not considered a type of lung cancer; rather, the disease affects the mesothelium (lining) of the lungs. For mesothelioma patients, the 5-year survival rate is less than 10 percent.
Again, the location, stage, and cell type of mesothelioma have the strongest influence on prognosis. The extent of asbestos exposure has little effect, as any amount can be dangerous. But in general, mesothelioma has a worse prognosis than lung cancer because its latency period is much longer – up to 50 years may pass before symptoms appear. By this time, sadly, the cancer has already progressed to an advanced stage and is incurable. Very few patients go into remission, and only 35 percent live longer than 1 year.
What Can I Do to Improve My Chances?
Early detection is the key to improving prognosis; the earlier cancer is caught, the better your quality and span of life. But lung cancer, and particularly mesothelioma, are difficult to detect. Fortunately, there are other ways to raise the odds.
Your chosen treatment, perhaps involving surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy, greatly impact your chances for prolonging your life and hopefully maintaining your quality of life. There are also alternative therapies or lifestyle changes to try, such as quitting smoking, art therapy, maintaining a healthy diet, and exercise. Even something as simple as a strong support system can make a difference.
Remember that survival rates are only general statistics and cannot provide an accurate prediction of the future. But the good news is, these numbers are changing – survival rates are based on past data, but advancements in treatment improve survivorship all the time. All things considered, the outlook for some survivors will always be better than others. To understand your own situation, the first step is to talk to your doctor.