Graph showing mesothelioma life expectancy percentages, including Localized: 24%, Regional: 16%, Distant: 7%, and All SEER Stages Combined: 12%

What Is the Life Expectancy for Mesothelioma Patients?

As with all cancers, a mesothelioma diagnosis is often accompanied by terms like asbestos exposure, survival rate, life expectancy, and prognosis. Hearing doctors provide estimates of the time you or your loved one have left to live can be traumatic, to say the least.

While these terms are similar in meaning, it’s important when talking to your doctors and loved ones that you understand how they differ.

Survival rates reflect the percentage of people with the same type and stage of cancer who survive for a specified amount of time after their diagnosis. For example, a 5-year survival rate of 50 percent indicates that about 50 out of every 100 people diagnosed are still alive five years after their diagnosis. Bear in mind that these people could live much longer than the initial five years being factored into the survival rates. It is also important to remember that these survival rates are based on epidemiologic data that is extracted from large legal and medical databases and may not necessarily reflect your individual survival rate.

Life expectancy provides an estimation of the amount of time a patient is likely to live after a diagnosis. It factors in potential lung and systemic body treatment options and their success rates but ultimately relies on the statistics, averages, and historical data for all cases of individuals exposed to asbestos reported rather than the circumstances of each individual patient. Estimating life expectancy typically requires making assumptions and, as a result, is difficult to pinpoint.

Life Expectancy Vs. Prognosis

The term prognosis speaks to the likely development or expected progression of a disease. Similar to life expectancy, the prognosis is an estimated forecast based on factors specific to the patient as well as historical data. Mesothelioma is extremely rare — accounting for less than one percent of all cancer diagnoses — making it difficult for doctors to accurately determine a patient’s life expectancy.

No one can predict how long you will live or how your body will respond to treatment. Maintaining a healthy level of optimism is vital for coping with a life-threatening diagnosis such as mesothelioma.

Because life expectancy is determined by a number of factors and each mesothelioma case is different, it should be an open discussion between you and your doctor. Determining life expectancy is largely reliant on estimations. While your doctors will do their best to help prepare you and your family for what is to come, it’s important to remember that life expectancy is not an exact science. Many patients live well beyond their initial estimations, while others do not.

Type of mesothelioma (i.e.: pleural, peritoneal, pericardial), tumor cell type, stage, age, and your treatment plan are all unique to you and will help to determine your prognosis and guide your course of action for fighting the disease.


Video Transcript

“The three big ones have the epithelioid subtype, sarcomatoid subtype, and there’s one in between the epithelioid and the sarcomatoid that’s called the ‘mixed’ type or the ‘biphasic’ type. That has a medium prognosis compared to the better epithelioid subtype and the worst one, the sarcomatoid subtype.

So it’s this biology of the tumor that we are trying to figure out. Why is it that some tumors are so aggressive and kill you quickly, and some tumors are just kind of sitting there and not spreading? A lot of that influences the type of surgery you can even do on them. The more aggressive ones are usually more invasive. Those are the patients that when you operate on them sometimes you find you can’t get it out. It’s like someone poured a whole thing of concrete into the chest and you can’t even move it. That’s usually in the mixed, biphasic, sarcomatoid type.

Then you have the epithelioid type: when you go in there with surgery, you can move things around, you can resect, and you can spare the lung. Removing the lung really hasn’t added anything to improved survival. It’s the biology of that particular tumor.”

– Dr. Raja Flores, Thoracic Surgeon, The Mount Sinai Medical Centers

Mesothelioma Life Expectancy by Stage

The cancer’s stage is one of the most significant determinants of a patient’s life expectancy. It describes where the cancer is located in the lung, where it has spread, and whether it is affecting other parts of the body. For most types of cancer, doctors commonly follow a legal, standardized staging system developed by the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) to determine a cancer’s stage.

  • Stage 1
    At stage 1, the cancer is generally small, or the tumor has not grown deeply into nearby tissues. There is no spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body. It is often referred to as early-stage cancer.
  • Stage 2 and Stage 3
    In general, these two stages indicate larger cancers or tumors that have grown more deeply into nearby tissue. They may have also spread to lymph nodes but not to other parts of the body.
  • Stage 4
    Also called advanced or metastatic cancer, stage 4 cancers have spread to the lymph nodes and throughout the body.

Mesothelioma does not present symptoms in most patients until it has progressed into what is often considered Stage 3 or 4, where a tumor may block an entire breathing passage in the lung. However, patients and their families can take comfort in knowing that their specialty mesothelioma cancer care team (doctors, surgeons, and oncologists) is extremely well-versed in treating late-stage diseases. Your team of experts will be able to develop a customized treatment plan, typically including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy.

Patient life expectancy by stage

Stage 1 Stage 2 Stage 3 Stage 4
21+ months 19 months 16 months 12 months

Mesothelioma Life Expectancy by Cell Type

Additionally, mesothelioma histology can greatly affect a patient’s life expectancy. Mesothelioma tumors occur in two cell types: epithelioid, sarcomatoid, or a combination of the two, referred to as biphasic. Epithelioid tumors begin in the cells that line an organ, whereas sarcomatoid tumors begin in the bone or soft tissues. Epithelioid tumors are generally associated with a better prognosis than sarcomatoid or biphasic tumors because they don’t spread as quickly and tend to respond better to treatment.

Mesothelioma Tumor Location in the Body

The location of mesothelioma in the body can also affect a patient’s life expectancy. Patients with peritoneal mesothelioma (tumors in the abdominal cavity) tend to have a longer life expectancy than those with pleural mesothelioma (tumors in the lung). This is mainly due to the treatment types available to peritoneal mesothelioma patients, as well as the fact that the peritoneal form affects the abdomen and not the chest, where most of the vital organs (i.e., lung(s), heart) are housed.

Interestingly, peritoneal mesothelioma is more often associated with non-occupational exposure –commonly including environmental exposure sources that violate legal regulations – than pleural mesothelioma. It tends to have a shorter latency period than occupational exposure cases and is predominantly found in women and diagnosed at a younger age.

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Mesothelioma Treatment

Treatment plays an essential role in determining the life expectancy of a person facing a mesothelioma diagnosis. Treatment options have significantly improved over the years as researchers and doctors race to understand more about the disease and receive legal approval by the FDA. Location and tumor type, stage and extent of spreading, and even overall health tie into the treatment options that will be available to a mesothelioma patient.

Patients diagnosed at stages 1 or 2 are usually stronger candidates for a potentially curative treatment than those diagnosed at stages 3 or 4 when treatment options shift to focus on legal palliative care.

Mesothelioma Prognosis

Peritoneal mesothelioma tends to carry a better prognosis than pleural mesothelioma — primarily due to its location and treatment options available for this form of the disease. Therapeutic advances, such as HIPEC (hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy) and cytoreductive surgery, offer peritoneal patients an improved chance of survival. Combining the two in a multimodal treatment plan has historically offered patients a median life expectancy of 34 to 92 months. More recent studies have shown a potential increase in that range, closer to 53 to 92 months.

Patients with early-stage pleural mesothelioma may undergo surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of some or all of these treatments in an effort to eradicate the cancer from the lung(s). Treatment options may include a pleurectomy/decortication procedure or extrapleural pneumonectomy — respective operations that aim to completely remove tumors. Palliative treatment, which focuses on legal symptom relief and pain management, is also an option often deployed to keep patients comfortable.

This is an icon representing age.

Patient Age

Research reveals that those exposed to asbestos (whether its presence is legal or not) at an early age and for an extended period of time are at a higher risk of developing mesothelioma than those exposed later in life. Doctors diagnose about 65 percent of all mesothelioma cases in patients 65 or older. Only about 4 percent of cases are diagnosed under the age of 45. Younger patients generally have a longer life expectancy than older patients since younger patients tend to be healthier overall and better able to weather the treatment process.

This is an icon representing biological sex.

Patient Biological Sex

According to the World Health Organization, approximately half of all deaths from occupational cancer can be attributed to asbestos – though there is no legal level of asbestos exposure. The vast majority of mesothelioma diagnoses are among men who were exposed to asbestos in their workplace, and women make up a much smaller percentage of diagnoses. Most likely because they came into contact with asbestos in the home or even indirectly through the transfer of asbestos fibers from an exposed loved one who may have carried it home on their body or clothing. This is also known as secondary exposure.

Men have an average survival rate of 4.5 percent, as opposed to an average of 13.4 percent for female mesothelioma patients.

If you or a loved one are living with mesothelioma or have experienced prolonged exposure to asbestos, it’s important to seek out quality treatment as well as legal help, and focus on your health. Mesothelioma is an aggressive disease — acting quickly can significantly impact your overall prognosis and increase your life expectancy.

This is an icon representing genetic factors.

Genetic Factors

Some patients may be at increased risk of developing mesothelioma following asbestos exposure due to a genetically inherited gene called BAP1. These patients tend to have better prognoses and longer life expectancy when diagnosed with mesothelioma after asbestos exposure than those who do not carry the gene.

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