For decades, the future for mesothelioma patients has been bleak. The lung cancer that is related to exposure to asbestos typically affects anyone who worked with or in close quarters with asbestos containing materials. “Shipyard workers and Navy veterans are at a high risk of developing mesothelioma,” says Belluck & Fox, “since many of those individuals lived and worked on navy vessels that asbestos containing materials such as insulation and heating/cooling systems.”
On Navy vessels, in particular, the work and living spaces are cramped and ship workers and Navy seamen were likely to breathe in the asbestos particles when they moved, fixed or even brushed up against any component that contained asbestos. At the time, basically anytime before the 1970’s, no one really knew of the dangers of being in contact with the cancer causing materials. Unfortunately, the damage that asbestos causes doesn’t appear until decades later when individuals find out they have an aggressive form of lung cancer and often times, there’s little that can be done.
Promising New Drugs
Up until recently, the only available treatments for mesothelioma was surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, and even those have had less than promising results. Many patients opt for treatment in hopes of relieving some of the pain, while others (doubtful of any hope) reject treatment of any kind.
In October of 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved two new immunotherapy drugs, Keytruda and Opdivo, to be used to fight malignant pleural mesothelioma (or the mesothelioma that affects the lungs). Both drugs were currently used to treat and fight other forms of cancers, but seemed promising for mesothelioma patients with the shortest rates of survival.
Keytruda and Opdivo target PD-1 and PD-L1, specific proteins that block an immune system from attacking cancer cells, these proteins were found in patients with aggressive forms of mesothelioma and who had been given the shortest survival time.
How It’s Being Used in Treatment
While each drug has shown promising results when used on its own, Keytruda and Opdivo are most effective when used with other drugs as secondary treatment in eliminating any remaining cancer cells after surgery, for example.
Since mesothelioma and lung cancer are different because of the way that mesothelioma forms in the lungs. Over time, years after asbestos exposure, cancerous masses cover a large area of the lungs and the ability to separate healthy or cancerous cells is almost impossible. Lung cancer on the other hand can occur from many different types of exposures and doesn’t necessarily spread the same way mesothelioma does. Despite the differences, researchers are confident that Keytruda and Opdivo, with their immunotherapy capabilities, will start to make small changes and hope for mesothelioma patients who have wanted assuming that there’s little option of survival.
While some individuals with mesothelioma may not be recommended for treatment using Keytruda or Opdivo, it may be particularly promising and hopeful for individuals who have otherwise been given a small window of survival. As with all cancer treatments, nothing is guaranteed, but after years of little promise, Keytruda and Opdivo may just be the key to stopping mesothelioma from spreading.
How to Recognize Early Symptoms
While it’s true that it isn’t always easy to detect cancer in its early stages, early diagnosis is a huge advantage in treatment. Therefore, it’s a good idea to inform yourself of cancer’s possible warning signs to help you look out for the health of yourself and your loved ones. The American Cancer Society provides a checklist of some general red flags to watch out for:
- Change in bowel/bladder habits
- Unexplained weight loss
- Persistent fever or fatigue
- Obvious changes in the shape/color/size of birthmarks, moles or sores, or general changes in one’s skin: itching, redness, etc.
This list is designed to reflect a variety of cancers. However, there’s no need to panic if you think you exhibit one of the signs, as none of these are anything like surefire. It’s also not a comprehensive list–you should also get checked if you display more specific indicators such as: lumps in the breast or testicle tissue, sores in your mouth that do not quickly heal, frequent nausea or headaches, or fluid in the lungs (this last could be a sign of mesothelioma). Since cancer can develop nearly anywhere in the body, its signs and symptoms are highly variable. If you have experienced one of these symptoms for two weeks or more, it’s better to be safe than sorry and see a doctor, as early detection can greatly improve one’s prognosis.
What You Need to Know About Screenings
Because of the advantages of early detection for many types of cancer, even if you have no symptoms, your doctor will likely want to perform several screenings. The most common screenings are:
- Colonoscopies (colorectal cancer screenings). For people at average risk, these are recommended yearly between the ages of 50 and 75.
- Mammograms (breast cancer screenings). These are recommended for women between the ages of 40 and 74.
- Low-dose helical computed tomography (lung cancer screenings). Thesre are generally recommended only for smokers between the ages of 55 and 74.
- Pap smears (cervical cancer and HPV screenings). These are recommended for all women aged 21-65.
Depending on your risk factors, your doctor may recommend others, such as blood tests, skin exams, and breast MRI’s. Depending on family history, some people may even benefit from genetic testing. However, more screenings are not necessarily better, and some actually have associated risks. Colonoscopies, for example, can cause tears in the lining of the colon. In addition, both false-positive and false-negative results are possible.
In some cases, the cancer never actually displays serious symptoms—the patient could have lived quite happily without the detection and subsequent treatment of the disease. Since there are many factors involved, your decisions about screenings should be tailored to your situation and made in consultation with your doctor. Remember that when your doctor suggests a screening, it is purely preventative; it does not mean you have cancer. If you take the proper, informed preventative steps, you increase your chances of living a long and healthy life.
The idea that diet can maintain good health and fight disease is an old one. For centuries, physicians and parents alike have pushed certain foods to cure the body’s ills. Jewish mothers serve chicken soup to anyone with a cold, following the famous recommendation from the 12th century Hebrew physician Maimonides (who actually said it would cure asthma and leprosy). Chinese parents add ginger to their kids’ meals, and Mexican abuelas slip a little chili into the sopa.
When it comes to cancer and other serious illnesses, though, patients are cautioned about dietary claims that a certain food will cure or slow a disease. A visit with a nutritionist is a much better idea to ensure the diet is well-rounded and includes nutrients to strengthen weakened immune systems.
Derivative of a Popular Indian Spice May Slow Mesothelioma
But now, researchers in U.S. and German universities say curcumin, which comes from the spice turmeric, contains a peptide that slows the progression of mesothelioma. Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma. Mesothelioma attorney Joseph Belluck says that any medical breakthrough is important when it comes to cancer. Although we don’t have a cure for mesothelioma, we have new information studied by doctors, such as the study of turmeric.
Turmeric is used throughout Asia and is prominent in Indian food. At this point, though, evidence that consuming it will slow the disease is thin at best. But can it be restructured for this, perhaps in a future medication?
Mesothelioma and other cancers are often triggered by the protein and transcription factor STAT3, which sends messages to start and continue the cancer’s growth. PIAS3, a protein inhibitor, or peptide, is a very effective agent against STAT3. And, according to researchers, it is found in curcumin. “We must develop a curcumin analog that is absorbable by the human body,” Afshin Dowlati, MD, Professor of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Science Daily reports. “Currently, curcumin ingested as the spice turmeric has practically no absorption within the gut.”
High PIAS3 Tramples STAT3, Kills Mesothelioma Cells
Dowlati, who is the senior author of a report that will be published October 10 in Clinical Cancer Research, and colleagues at Georg-Speyer Haus in Frankfurt, Germany, looked at tissue samples from mesothelioma solid tumors removed from patients in different parts of the US. Each sample contained information about how long the patient lived with the disease and the type of mesothelioma.
Patients with low PIAS3 peptides had active STAT3 and were more likely to die sooner. But those with high PIAS3 levels were 44 percent more likely to live another year, “which is substantial,” Dowlati says in a Case Western press release.
The researchers conclude that curcumin and PIAS3 peptides raised PIAS3 levels, which lowered STAT3 activity and caused mesothelioma cells to die, a finding that can lead to clinical trials.
PIAS3 May Hold Clues to Mesothelioma Progression
The study also shows that PIAS3 may be a reliable indicator of mesothelioma progression. Mesothelioma tumors rarely progress the same way as other ones, making it hard to predict what twists and turns patients and physicians can anticipate.
“PIAS3 activation could become a therapeutic strategy,” Dowlati theorizes. “Our findings beg the question of what role [it] could play in limiting STAT3 activation in other cancers as well.”