Mesothelioma treatment is not an optimistic process. If mesothelioma has progressed in the patient – and in most diagnosed patients, there is significant progression before diagnosis – then there is not much that medical science can do, other than to make the patient comfortable. This is referred to as palliative care.

However, if the mesothelioma is in its first stage, it is sometimes possible for the patient to make a full recovery. Noted biologist Stephen Jay Gould was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma in 1982, and survived his diagnosis by twenty years, eventually dying of a different, unrelated cancer. Gould’s disease was caught in the very earliest stage – the best treatment for mesothelioma is to diagnose it right away.

When a mesothelioma is in Stage I it is possible for the tumors to be surgically removed. The surgeon will remove all the visible tumor mass, as well as some of the surrounding healthy tissue to minimize the chance of metastasizing. If the tumor is still localized but has appeared in more than one spot on the pleura, the surgeon may perform a pleurectomy, removing the entire outer membrane of the lung. If there is a build-up of fluid in the pleural space, the surgeon may perform a thoracentesis to drain the fluid.

Most cancers, including mesothelioma, are not generally cured by a single surgery. Although the gross tumor mass has been removed, tiny cancer colonies usually remain, and left untreated they will expand and form new tumor masses. Effective treatment for mesothelioma therefore starts with the surgery, but continues to involve chemotherapy or radiation therapy in order to minimize the chance that the cancer will grow back.

Chemotherapy is the standard treatment for cancer, including mesothelioma. In chemotherapy, chemical drugs which are toxic to cancer cells (and, unfortunately, generally toxic to healthy cells as well) are targeted to the area of the body where the cancer is suspected to be lurking. Most chemotherapy drugs target the mechanisms that allow cells to reproduce, destroying the cancer cell’s ability to spread itself through the body. Chemotherapy has a number of side effects, including loss of appetite, nausea, hair loss, sores in the mucous membranes, constipation, diarrhea, and fatigue.

Radiation therapy is the other standard treatment used to fight cancer. Radiation therapy as a secondary treatment for mesothelioma involves using a tight beam of radiation aimed at the potential tumor site, in essence zapping the tiny cancer colonies or precancerous cells and destroying them. The beam must be very carefully aimed and calibrated, as radiation therapy is just as deadly to healthy cells as it is to cancer cells. Side effects from radiation therapy are similar to those found with chemotherapy, but also include the swelling of the body’s soft tissues. This swelling may be treated with steroids, or prevented by surgical removal of the soft tissues which would be affected before the therapy begins.

There are also experimental and alternative treatments for mesothelioma which show some process, including photodynamic therapy (using beams of light in conjunction with special drugs that enhance a patient’s sensitivity to light) and immunotherapy, training the body’s immune system to be more effective at fighting cancer. These treatments show promise in making treatment for mesothelioma (and other cancers) more effective and less debilitating to patients.