What kind of future does a mesothelioma patient confront? This question is one of the most pressing concerns for both patients and their loved ones.

There’s no concealing it: mesothelioma is a serious disease. All forms of cancer have improved survival rates when they are caught early, but for mesothelioma this is rarely the case. Several factors contribute to this. Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos, but years, even decades, can pass between a person’s exposure and their diagnosis. Many workers and former workers in industries like construction, shipyards, and auto manufacturing are unaware of the risk they face prior to diagnosis. And the early symptoms of mesothelioma – an ache in the chest or lower back, coughs, fever, fatigue – are similar to those of a wide variety of other diseases. There are, as of yet, no successful screening tests designed exclusively to catch mesothelioma early.

That means that mesothelioma – much like lung cancers in general – is often diagnosed after the disease is firmly established in the patient, and may have begun spreading – lowering survival chances.

Median Survival Rates & Stages

Cancers are generally divided into 4 stages, with Stage IV cancers the most likely to be fatal. For mesothelioma patients, a Stage I diagnosis is one where the cancer has been found on one side of the chest wall, but the disease has not spread to the lymph nodes or other areas of the body. Stage II means the cancer has spread beyond the primary tumor to other areas of the chest cavity, but not to the lymph nodes or other areas of the body.

Doctors consider a mesothelioma to be in Stage III when it has either spread into the tissue surrounding the lungs or to the lymph nodes, but not to other areas of the body. Stage IV mesothelioma means the disease has either begun to spread to distant areas in the body, to other vital organs such as the heart or spine, or throughout the lymph nodes.

An international study of mesothelioma patients who had been treated with surgery examined their median survival rates (half the patients lived longer than this figure, half the patients did not):

  • For Stage I patients, the median survival time was 21 months.
  • For Stage II patients, the median survival time was 19 months.
  • For Stage III patients, the median survival time was 16 months.
  • For Stage IV patients, the median survival time was 12 months.

Factors That Can Impact Survival Times

Some forms of mesothelioma can be treated with surgery, and these patients typically survive longer than average. In addition, though each individual patient’s case is unique and unpredictable, there are several factors that indicate a patient might live longer with their disease than average:

  • Female patients
  • Younger patients
  • People who are in overall good health

5-Year Survival Rates

A key stat cancer researchers and oncologists often refer to is the “5-year survival rate.” This term refers to cancers patients who have lived at least 5 years following their initial diagnosis, comparing them to similarly-aged patients who were not diagnosed with cancer. Patients may certainly live longer than that.

According to statistics from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the 5-year survival rate for mesothelioma patients is between 5 and 10 percent. Younger patients are more likely to live longer.

Reasons for Optimism

By necessity, statistics such as 5-year survival rates are derived from patients who were diagnosed several years ago, and may not reflect the impact of new treatments. Several new approaches to mesothelioma treatment are currently being tested in clinical trials, which may provide a new path forward to fight the disease. These include photodynamic therapy, targeted drugs, gene therapy, and immunotherapy.