Mesothelioma Surgery

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Surgery for mesothelioma can include pleurectomy/decortication (P/D) and extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP). P/D removes all diseased tissue around the lung, while EPP removes the lung as well. Patients must be in strong health with limited cancer spread to benefit from major surgery.

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Top mesothelioma specialist Dr. David Sugarbaker on why it's critical to remain positive after a mesothelioma diagnosis.
Top mesothelioma specialist Dr. David Sugarbaker on why it's critical to remain positive after a mesothelioma diagnosis.

Why Is Surgery for Mesothelioma the Best Treatment?

Major surgery is considered the best treatment for mesothelioma because it offers the greatest chance of long-term survival.

Mesothelioma patients also have several surgical options that vary depending on the type of mesothelioma, cancer stage and goal of the procedure.

But not all mesothelioma patients may be eligible for surgery. Before surgery, mesothelioma doctors assess each patient to make sure they are healthy enough to undergo surgery. Doctors examine lung and heart health with pulmonary function and cardiac stress tests.

Important Factors for Determining Surgery Eligibility

  • Your overall health is good.
  • Your lung and heart function tests indicate normal or near-normal organ function.
  • Your doctor is confident you can recover from potential surgery complications.
  • Your mesothelioma has not spread too far.

Mesothelioma surgery is not risk-free, but it offers significant potential improvements in survival time and quality of life.

Three Important Goals of Mesothelioma Surgery

Surgeries for mesothelioma patients generally fall into three categories:

  • Diagnostic
  • Tumor removal
  • Palliative care

You and your mesothelioma medical team can work together to choose the mesothelioma surgery that is best for you. Doctors will base their decisions on your overall health, goal of the procedure and stage of your mesothelioma.

Diagnostic Mesothelioma Surgery

Typically, your medical team cannot make a definitive and accurate cancer diagnosis without direct access to your tumor.

Biopsies obtain a sample of cancer cells for examination. The cells can be studied to determine mesothelioma cell type.

Mesothelioma Cytoreductive Surgery

Combining major, tumor-removing surgery with other treatments, such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy, is called multimodal therapy.

This aggressive treatment approach can extend life expectancy and potentially send mesothelioma into remission. Remission isn’t a cure, but it provides time for patients to live without having to cope with active cancer in their body.

Palliative Surgery

This is a less invasive alternative to tumor-removing surgery. The aim of all palliative treatments is to improve quality of life by alleviating pain and other cancer symptoms. Some patients experience longer life with palliative surgery, too.

If you qualify for surgery, you also may be able to join a cancer clinical trial of other treatment options.

Mesothelioma surgeons can offer patients the opportunity to participate in clinical trials to investigate optimal therapies to combine with surgery. This research is slowly improving mesothelioma survival rates.

Pleural Mesothelioma Surgery

Pleural mesothelioma, which occurs in the pleural membrane lining the chest cavity and enclosing the lungs, has the most surgical options. Because pleural disease accounts for roughly 70% to 75% of all mesothelioma cases, there is more research on it than other types.

The research has led to the development of a variety of pleural mesothelioma surgery types. These procedures can be matched to best meet patient needs and treatment goals.

Diagnosing Pleural Mesothelioma and Easing Symptoms

The primary diagnostic procedure for pleural mesothelioma is a thoracoscopy. The two main palliative procedures, thoracentesis and pleurodesis, also can be used for diagnosis.

Thoracoscopy

A thoracoscopy is also called video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS). This procedure involves inserting a special camera and a long, thin probe through small incisions in the chest.

These tools enable a doctor to take a biopsy sample from the tissue around the lungs without opening the entire chest cavity. The video component allows the surgeon to see exactly where to retrieve the best biopsies.

Learn More About Thoracoscopy

Thoracentesis

When fluid builds up between the two layers of the pleural lining surrounding the lungs, a doctor can drain it through a hollow needle. This procedure relieves pressure and makes it easier to breathe.

The pleural fluid can then be tested for cancer cells as part of the diagnostic process.

Learn More About Thoracentesis

Pleurodesis

This procedure is similar to thoracentesis and is used to drain fluid buildup between layers of the pleura. Pleurodesis goes one step further because it also seals the area to prevent fluid from building again in the future.

Learn More About Pleurodesis
Mary Lyons Pleural mesothelioma survivor diagnosed in 2015

“I had gotten to the point where I couldn’t walk without being out of breath. It scared the heck out of me. But having my lung drained was immediate relief. I felt so much better.”

Removing Pleural Mesothelioma Tumors

Doctors primarily use one of two tumor-removing surgeries for pleural mesothelioma: Extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP) and pleurectomy/decortication (P/D). Around 15% to 20% of people with pleural mesothelioma qualify for tumor-removing surgery.

A thoracotomy, the first step for many asbestos-related lung cancer surgeries, is used to make an incision on either side of the chest.

Surgery for EPP, P/D, pneumonectomy, lobectomy, wedge resection and segmentectomy all begin with thoracotomy.

During surgery, the surgeon may discover the tumor is too extensive to remove. They can still gather information on cancer stage during the procedure. This helps guide the treatment plan. If cancer is localized, they will proceed with tumor removal.

The average hospital stay after a thoracotomy is five to 10 days.

What to Expect After Thoracotomy

  • Pain, numbness, burning: Surgery irritates nerve endings near the incision, and you may experience pain, numbness or burning below your breast and at the front of your rib cage.
  • Fluid drainage: Clear or pink fluid may drain from the incision. This is normal.
  • Incision care: You will be given instructions on caring for your incision such as not submerging it in a bathtub or spa for several weeks.
  • Taking it easy: You will need to avoid heavy lifting and other strenuous activities for at least eight weeks, and maybe longer if your doctor feels it’s necessary for proper recovery.
  • Rehabilitation: Your doctor will refer you to a physical therapist or pulmonary rehab specialist to give you a program of daily breathing exercises and to improve your strength, circulation and lung capacity.

Pneumonectomy

This procedure involves removing a lung. A patient may qualify for this surgery if the cancer hasn’t spread beyond one lung. Most mesothelioma surgeons perform the more extensive EPP surgery rather than simple pneumonectomy.

However, one 2019 study found less invasive mesothelioma surgery resulted in better survival for some patients with early disease.

Learn More About Pneumonectomy

Extrapleural pneumonectomy

This aggressive surgery removes an entire lung, the lining around it, nearby lymph nodes and parts of the diaphragm and the lining around the heart called the pericardium.

Theoretically, EPP offers the best chance to remove all cancer cells. However, it is an intense procedure and permanently reduces the patient’s stamina and strength.

Learn More About Extrapleural Pneumonectomy

Pleurectomy/decortication

The P/D was developed as a less aggressive alternative to removing an entire lung.

Surgeons remove the pleural lining around the lungs and all visible tumors. They scrape the surface of the diseased lung rather than removing the organ.

Learn More About Pleurectomy/Decortication

Have Questions About Mesothelioma Surgery?

We can answer your questions and provide free support resources.

Robotic Surgery for Pleural Mesothelioma

After robotic surgery proved its effectiveness for other minimally invasive procedures, doctors began using it for chest cancer surgeries in 2006.

In 2013, Dr. Farid Gharagozloo performed the first major robotic surgery, an extrapleural pneumonectomy, for a pleural mesothelioma patient.

Robotic thoracic surgeon Dr. Farid Gharagozloo explains the advantages of robotic surgery for mesothelioma patients.

Gharagozloo currently consults with and treats mesothelioma patients at Florida Hospital Celebration Health. He says the robotic da Vinci Surgical System he uses will change the future of mesothelioma treatment.

Surgeons use tiny, computer-guided instruments attached to a robotic arm for more precise movement, a magnified view and better maneuverability during the operation.

Benefits of Robotic Surgery

  • Reduced blood loss
  • Less pain
  • Reduced postoperative recovery time
  • Less stress on the remaining lung after EPP
Learn More About Robotic Surgery

Top Pleural Mesothelioma Surgeons

Dr. Abraham Lebenthal, pleural mesothelioma doctor

Abraham Lebenthal

Brigham and Women's Hospital

Dr. Abraham Lebenthal is a respected thoracic surgeon who treats pleural mesothelioma patients at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Boston VA Hospital. Lebenthal worked alongside Dr. David Sugarbaker at Brigham and teaches at Harvard Medical School.

Get in touch
Dr. Robert B. Cameron, pleural mesothelioma doctor

Robert B. Cameron

UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center

Dr. Robert B. Cameron developed a lung-sparing surgery for pleural mesothelioma that not only extends survival but offers greater quality of life by preserving the lung. Cameron’s surgery has a lower risk of complications and studies report longer survival times.

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Dr. Rodney Landreneau, Thoracic Surgeon& Expert Contributor for Asbestos.com

Rodney Landreneau

Dr. Landreneau is a pleural mesothelioma specialist and the former director of Allegheny Hospital’s Esophageal and Lung Institute. He also directed the University of Pittsburgh’s Lung Cancer Program. Landreneau opened his specialized practice in 2015.

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Peritoneal Mesothelioma Surgery

Peritoneal mesothelioma accounts for less than 20% of all mesothelioma cases. If untreated, it is more aggressive than the other types of mesothelioma, with a six-month average survival.

However, peritoneal disease also responds better to treatment than most other mesothelioma cancers. With the combination of surgery and hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC), nearly half of patients live five years after diagnosis.

Diagnosing Peritoneal Mesothelioma and Easing Symptoms

When mesothelioma occurs in the abdomen, it can cause fluid buildup in the peritoneal cavity. This is the space between the two membranes that separate the abdominal organs from the abdominal wall.

Paracentesis

When fluids build up in the abdomen, doctors can drain it with a minor surgical procedure called paracentesis. They use a long hollow needle to draw out the excess liquid, which relieves pressure on nearby organs and reduces symptoms.

Paracentesis is used in two ways:

  • Palliative care: This lessens symptoms, helps patients feel better and improves quality of life. Repeated therapeutic paracentesis procedures can be administered as palliative care for patients with advanced stages of this disease.
  • Diagnostic: If doctors don’t know the cause of fluid accumulation, they can examine the fluids for the presence of cancer cells. This can help them diagnose peritoneal mesothelioma or rule it out if another condition is causing the problem.

Peritoneal fluid buildup is also known as ascites or peritoneal effusion, and paracentesis is sometimes called an abdominal tap or an ascitic tap.

Learn More About Paracentesis

Removing Peritoneal Mesothelioma Tumors
Nearly 40% of peritoneal mesothelioma patients qualify for tumor-removing surgery. The most effective treatment for this disease combines a peritonectomy with HIPEC.

Peritonectomy

In this procedure, surgeons remove the diseased parts of the peritoneal lining of the abdomen. They use cytoreductive surgery to remove as much cancerous growth as possible from the abdominal cavity.

This is also called debulking surgery, and it may involve removing parts of the liver, pancreas, spleen, gall bladder, bowels and stomach, too.

Learn More About Peritonectomy

HIPEC Treatment

Mesothelioma specialists pump a heated mixture of chemotherapy drugs directly into the abdominal cavity during surgery, after debulking. It may remain in the abdomen for up to two hours to allow it to reach all cancer cells not removed during surgery.

HIPEC has fewer side effects than oral or intravenous chemotherapy. Because it isn’t injected into the bloodstream, much stronger drugs can be used. Some chemotherapy does reach the bloodstream, but HIPEC causes less severe side effects than intravenous chemotherapy.

Learn More About HIPEC Treatment

Top Peritoneal Mesothelioma Surgeons

Dr. Paul H. Sugarbaker, peritoneal mesothelioma doctor

Paul H. Sugarbaker

Washington Cancer Center

Dr. Paul Sugarbaker is the country’s leading expert on peritoneal mesothelioma. He developed the widely renowned cytoreductive surgery and heated chemotherapy technique that changed the landscape of peritoneal cancer treatment. Many people with peritoneal mesothelioma are alive today because of Sugarbaker’s innovations.

Get in touch
Dr. W. Charles Conway, peritoneal mesothelioma doctor & expert contributor for Asbestos.com

W. Charles Conway

Ridley-Tree Cancer Center

Dr. W. Charles Conway is an expert in peritoneal mesothelioma and the Director of Surgical Oncology at Ridley-Tree Cancer Center in Santa Barbara, California. He specializes in minimally invasive robotic surgery and heated chemotherapy for peritoneal mesothelioma.

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Dr. Joel Baumgartner, Assistant Professor of Surgery

Joel Baumgartner

UC Moores Cancer Center

Dr. Baumgartner is a peritoneal mesothelioma specialist and one of America’s most innovative young surgeons. He is an expert in the use of hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC). Baumgartner came to Moores from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

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Pericardial Mesothelioma Surgery

Pericardial mesothelioma patients may experience chest pain, dyspnea (shortness of breath) and coughing. These symptoms are the result of fluid buildup in the heart lining.

A pericardiocentesis is similar to thoracentesis and paracentesis. Except in this case, the fluids are removed from around the heart, rather than the lungs or abdomen.

Pericardial fluid rarely contains malignant cells when mesothelioma is present, so the procedure is not effective for diagnosing disease. It is used palliatively to improve quality of life and relieve symptoms.

Pericardiectomy

The tumor-removing procedure to treat pericardial mesothelioma is a pericardiectomy. This surgery removes as much cancerous tissue as possible from the heart lining.

It can relieve symptoms caused by pericarditis (inflammation of the pericardium) and pericardial effusion (buildup of fluid in the pericardium). It’s important to treat these conditions early because they can lead to deadly complications if untreated.

Learn More About Pericardiectomy
Isabel De La Camara Peritoneal mesothelioma survivor diagnosed in 2008

“I want to make it through another surgery and reach the 10-year mark. My future is going to be happy, and every day will be an adventure.”

Heart surgeons, also called cardiac surgeons, perform pericardiectomies. Patients should ask how many of these procedures a surgeon has performed to gauge their experience level.

Surgeons who have performed more pericardiectomies tend to have the best outcomes and fewer patient complications. And some hospitals are known for having experts who do these rare surgeries more often.

Mesothelioma Surgery Side Effects

The most common side effects of mesothelioma surgery are pain, swelling and infection at the incision site. Swelling and drainage usually occur when a foreign object, such as a needle, knife or tube, is placed into the body.

In fact, open drainage is recommended during the healing process. Preventing fluid accumulation aids recovery. Bruising of the injured tissues is typical, too.

These side effects usually resolve themselves on their own within days to weeks.

Other Side Effects of Surgery

Bleeding

Most patients will experience minimal bleeding, which poses no threat to health. During recovery, overstretching or stressing the incision area can result in bleeding. If this happens, seek immediate medical attention.

Fatigue

Even after anesthesia wears off, patients may feel fatigued from the stress of an invasive procedure. This is especially true after a major operation such as EPP or P/D. Fatigue may be intensified by not getting good nutrition and plenty of rest to restore the body’s energy levels.

Cardiac complications

Mesothelioma surgeries in the chest cavity pose the risk of cardiac complications. The most common risk is atrial fibrillation or cardiac arrhythmia (irregular or abnormal heart beat).

If you have any questions about your symptoms or feel they are worse than they should be, call your doctor right away.

Excessive inflammation, redness, severe incision pain or foul-smelling drainage at the surgery site may be signs of infection. It is imperative to report infection immediately to prevent it from becoming fatal. Postoperative infection must be treated under a doctor’s care.

Managing Pain After Surgery

Discomfort after mesothelioma surgery may be dull and tingling or more intense. For some patients, the pain will occur when they stand, sit, walk or try to perform daily activities.

But for others, the pain may occur even at rest.

Your surgeon can help you develop a pain management plan to cope with the discomfort you experience after surgery. Before you leave the hospital, your doctor will provide a prescription for oral pain medication.

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Registered Nurse and Patient Advocate

Karen Selby joined Asbestos.com in 2009. She is a registered nurse with a background in oncology and thoracic surgery and was the regional director of a tissue bank before becoming a Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center. Karen has assisted surgeons with thoracic surgeries such as lung resections, lung transplants, pneumonectomies, pleurectomies and wedge resections. She is also a member of the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators.

Walter Pacheco, Managing Editor at Asbestos.com
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Last Modified June 19, 2019

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