Veterans with Mesothelioma Should Have Hope — You Can Get Great Treatment

Mesothelioma Treatment Boston VA Medical Center

We want every veteran who is diagnosed with mesothelioma and has VA health care benefits — from anywhere in the country – to think seriously about coming to my office in Boston.

These soldiers fulfilled their duty by serving their country. We are honored and privileged to offer them exceptional care in return. We have a unique system in place that can really give veterans an edge in battling a rare disease.

At the Boston VA Healthcare System, we welcome veterans from all over this great land: Caribou, Maine; Tucson, Ariz.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Anchorage, Alaska; Jacksonville, Fla.; and many other cities and towns.

We are happy to treat you in our facility, which is affiliated with the leading thoracic program at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital (BWH), the Harvard Medical School, and the International Mesothelioma Program (IMP). Once you have VA privileges, everything is in network. You won’t have to fight with your insurance company, or face prohibitive co-pays.

Unfortunately, a lot of people with mesothelioma still are told: “It’s a fatal disease, and there’s nothing you can do.” They take it at face value, and that’s the end of it. That’s still the overwhelming perception in the medical community, and that’s what we need to change. People hear, often incorrectly, “You have six months to live, and there’s nothing we can do for you.”

They hear this from their local physician, or they read all the gloom and doom on the Internet, and just give up. That happens too often. Unfortunately it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The patient loses hope, doesn’t fight and dies. They don’t question it, taking this opinion to be fact.

Special Care Can Mean Special Results

However, with specialized care, for many this may not be true. The fact is that for the majority of patients with bad diseases, an accurate diagnosis and tailored therapy will prolong life. Over the last decade, advances have occurred in diagnosis, staging and treatment of mesothelioma.

In specialty centers, safety around the surgery has improved, newer chemotherapy has proven effective and diagnostic tools have evolved. There has been change for the better, but at the end of the day, the issue still is getting the right treatment to the right patient – a tailored approach.

The initial critical step is getting the correct pathologic diagnosis. This is not simple and requires expertise. Without accurate diagnosis, treatment is impossible. The next issue is staging the disease accurately, then delivering the stage-appropriate treatment. We can do that in Boston. A lot of other places can’t. That’s not a knock on anyone. It’s just that they don’t see mesothelioma enough.

There Are Long-Term Mesothelioma Survivors

I have seen many long-term survivors with mesothelioma at Dr. Sugarbaker’s clinic in BWH. Some are disease-free, while others are still battling the disease. Our surgical strategy, when appropriate, centers on cytoreductive surgery.

Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee a cure, but through multimodal care we can prolong life for some of our patients. I think I am a realist at heart – not an optimist or a pessimist. I call things like I see them.

There are a higher percentage of mesothelioma cases not being treated than with many other cancers. And that shouldn’t be true. But why is it so? Part of that is the nihilistic or fatalistic attitude about the disease.

The fact is, the five-year survival rate with mesothelioma is better than with pancreatic cancer. It’s better than with liver cancer – and better than a lot of other cancers out there.

One of the hardest things about treating a disease like this is getting over the barrier of “it can’t be done.” It’s just being able to tell yourself, “I think I can,” or at least, “Maybe I can.” It’s not impossible if you know how to do it.

This is specialty care, so you need a specialty center.

If you’re going to have surgery for a life-threatening problem, don’t you want to go to the very best place? The level of care in the Boston VA health care system is on par with the very best university or private care systems in the country. We’re striving to create a center of excellence for mesothelioma within the VA system.

VA System Doesn’t Have to Be an Obstacle

I don’t see the system as a stumbling block now for mesothelioma patients. I see the lack of awareness as a stumbling block. I see the fear of leaving one’s home and one’s own environment as a stumbling block. People worry and ask, “Can my caregiver come with me?”

Our answer is: Yes. We’re lucky to have a system in place that can help address many of the issues patients have.

If you live 1,000 miles away, you need to be a special kind of person to be willing to get on a plane, a train or in your automobile to seek out the best possible care. These are the survivors.

A lot of people, when told mesothelioma is a fatal disease and there is nothing they can do, they take it at face value. Unfortunately, that’s still the overwhelming perception.

That’s what we’re trying to change.


Dr. Abraham Lebenthal is a thoracic surgeon at Brigham & Women's Hospital and the VA Boston Healthcare System. He is a former veteran of the Israeli military.

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