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For decades, pleural mesothelioma was not well understood and survival rates were quite low. But while many victims of the disease will be told that they have less than a year (or maybe two) to live, more and more cases of pleural mesothelioma patients living past their projected life span have come to light as conventional treatments improve and alternative therapies are discovered.
Pleural mesothelioma is an unusual cancer in that it can take up to five decades for symptoms of the disease to surface. While at first glance this might be viewed as positive, the fact remains that once the cancer appears and is diagnosed, it has generally reached Stage 3 or 4 on the standard cancer staging scale. This means that the cancer has probably already spread from the pleural area to other parts of the body. Such metastasis makes mesothelioma very hard to treat successfully.
One of the keys to a longer survival time for pleural mesothelioma victims would be earlier diagnosis of the disease. Until recently, however, that was nearly impossible. But scientists are constantly looking for new ways to enhance diagnosis of this cancer in its early stages and with tests like the Mesomark® blood test, the road to earlier detection of the disease is beginning to unfold. Early diagnosis, of course, means more options for treatment and, ultimately, a longer survival rate.
Despite the fact that conventional treatments for pleural mesothelioma simply have not been very successful, there are a number of patients that have survived well beyond the projected months they were given when diagnosed. Most of these individuals have one thing in common – they partook of treatments that, in some way, enhanced their immune system.
Doctors have long theorized that perhaps the immune system and mesothelioma are definitively linked. A study conducted in the 1980s noted that “the presence of asbestos fibers in exposed workers may have caused the eventual breakdown of the host's surveillance system and the onset of neoplasm [malignant mesothelioma]."
Hence, many medical professionals, researchers, and patients have come to believe that treatments that can improve the immune system may indeed stop the growth of mesothelioma or perhaps even cure the disease. In fact, many of the patients who received a grim prognosis yet survived for years after diagnosis or were “cured” of the disease participated in immunology trials while others opted for some sort of alternative therapy that enhanced their immune system.
Throughout the last several years, stories of pleural mesothelioma survivors have come to the forefront of discussions about the treatment of the disease. The peer-reviewed journal The Annals of Thoracic Surgery, for example,cites the case of a British man who was first diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1994 and was treated with surgery and no other conventional therapies. Doctors followed him for seven years and he remained cancer free. A 2007 case involving an Australian woman saw similar results. In both cases, doctors determined that the patients’ own immune system may have played a role in the disappearance of the disease.
Doctors who treated a similar case in the 1970s involving a shipyard employee from the Brooklyn Navy Yard saw a similar phenomenon. They hypothesized: “This unusual course may be explained either by the presence of low-grade malignancy or by the unusual host resistance…Our findings are consistent with the concept that normal immunological function may effectively impede dissemination of the disease (malignant pleural mesothelioma).”
While “normal immunological function” may have aided some patients, others took the task of enhancing their immune system into their own hands. A gentleman named Rhio O’Connor, for example, survived nearly 8 years with pleural mesothelioma. Author of a book entitled "They Said Months, I Chose Years: A Mesothelioma Survivor's Story," O’Connor opted not to try conventional therapies like chemotherapy or radiation. Instead, with the help of some open-minded medical doctors, he developed a daily regimen that included some 100 supplements and also drastically changed his diet. O’Connor also practiced “mind-body” medicine, which included stress-reducing techniques like meditation. When he passed away in July 2009, he had defied all the odds.