Mesothelioma Surgery

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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Major surgery offers the greatest chance of long-term survival with mesothelioma. If an experienced surgeon can remove all visible signs of the cancer before it spreads far, you could live for many years after surgery.

Before discussing surgery as an option, doctors will want to make sure your body is strong enough to endure a major procedure and recover from it. They will determine your lung and heart health by conducting a pulmonary function test and running cardiac tests. These tests may include an electrocardiogram (EKG), stress test, echocardiogram or coronary angiogram.

If your overall health is strong enough to withstand potential complications from surgery, and your mesothelioma has not spread too far, then your doctor will approve you as a candidate for surgery. There are risks involved in surgery, but the potential rewards are great. Many of the survivors on our Wall of Hope opted for surgeries that gave them more years to spend with children and grandchildren.

Three Different Purposes of Mesothelioma Surgery

Surgeries for mesothelioma patients generally fall into three categories: Diagnostic, tumor removal and palliative. Sometimes when major surgery is not an option, a patient can still benefit from a less invasive procedure. Choosing what type of mesothelioma surgery to have is up to you and the specialists overseeing your care.

Statistics support surgery as the best first-line treatment option for living longer with this disease. When it comes to each individual case, sometimes the choice is clear-cut, and sometimes the patient’s circumstances make it difficult to balance the risk and the reward.

A mesothelioma specialist can conduct a thorough assessment and explain what procedures make the most sense for your situation. They will take several factors into account, including the stage of the cancer and your overall health.

Diagnostic

A medical team usually cannot make a definitive cancer diagnosis without performing a minor surgery called a biopsy. This procedure extracts a sample of cancer cells for examination.

Tumor Removal

When performed as part of multimodal therapy, major surgery to remove tumors can extend life expectancy and potentially even send mesothelioma into remission.

Palliative

Palliative surgery is a less invasive alternative to tumor-removing surgery. It aims to improve quality of life by alleviating pain and other cancer symptoms.

If you qualify for surgery, you may also be able to join a clinical trial of an experimental treatment. Mesothelioma surgeons can offer their patients the opportunity to participate in clinical trials to investigate the best therapies to combine with surgery. This research is slowly improving mesothelioma survival rates.

Video of top mesothelioma oncologist Dr. David Sugarbaker on why it is 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.
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Pleural Mesothelioma Surgery

Surgical treatment for pleural mesothelioma has improved since it began in the 1970s. But, the rarity of this cancer means that most patients still need to travel to a specialty cancer center to see a mesothelioma specialist.

Diagnosing Pleural Mesothelioma and Easing Symptoms

The primary diagnostic procedure for pleural mesothelioma is a thoracoscopy. The two main palliative procedures, thoracentesis and pleurodesis, can also 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 having to open the entire chest cavity.

    Learn More About Thoracoscopy

  • Thoracentesis

    When fluid builds 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 drains fluid buildup, like a thoracentesis. It then goes a step further by sealing the area to prevent fluid from building again in the future. Doctors usually inject talc into the pleural cavity to seal it, although chemicals may be used in certain cases.

    Learn More About Pleurodesis

Removing Pleural Mesothelioma Tumors

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

“Thoracotomy” is a general term for a surgery that allows doctors to access a patient’s lungs, heart, aorta, trachea or diaphragm. It involves making an incision 4–10 inches long on either side of the chest. Extensive procedures, such as EPP and P/D, require a thoracotomy. A thoracotomy is also the first step in several asbestos-related lung cancer surgeries. These surgeries include pneumonectomy, lobectomy, wedge resection and segmentectomy.

Unfortunately, up to 25 percent of mesothelioma patients cleared for surgery are found to be inoperable after a thoracotomy is performed. Doctors try to predict this with the latest advances in imaging technology and other diagnostic techniques, but surgeons cannot determine whether a planned tumor-removing surgery is actually possible until they look inside the patient.

In cases where the cancer has spread too far for surgery to help, the surgeons will pinpoint the cancer stage. This can guide the patient’s overall treatment plan. If the cancer is localized, however, the surgeons will proceed with the tumor removal.

“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.”

Mary Lyons, pleural mesothelioma survivor diagnosed in 2015
  • 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 just a pneumonectomy.

    Learn More About Pneumonectomy

  • Extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP)

    This aggressive surgery removes an entire lung, the lining around it, nearby lymph nodes and parts of the pericardium and diaphragm. Theoretically, it offers the best chance to remove all cancer cells, but it also permanently reduces the patient’s stamina.

    Learn More About Extrapleural Pneumonectomy (EPP)

  • Pleurectomy/decortication (P/D)

    This procedure was developed as a less aggressive alternative to removing a lung. Surgeons remove the pleural lining around the lungs and all visible tumors. They scrape the diseased lung rather than remove it.

    Learn More About Pleurectomy/decortication (P/D)

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The average hospital stay after a thoracotomy is five to 10 days. These surgeries irritate nerve endings near the incision, so you will likely experience pain, numbness or burning below your breast and at the front of your rib cage.

Drainage of clear or pink fluid from the incision is normal. You should clean your incision in the shower, washing gently with warm water and a mild soap. Avoid submerging the incision in a bathtub or spa for three weeks. Avoid heavy lifting and other strenuous activities for eight weeks. They could put stress on your incision and delay recovery. You can perform breathing exercises and walk every day to improve your strength, circulation and lung capacity.

Robotic Surgery for Pleural Mesothelioma

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

Robotic surgery is the newest way for thoracic surgeons to conduct cancer surgeries. After the technology proved its effectiveness for minimally invasive procedures, doctors began using it for chest cancer surgeries in 2006. In 2013, Dr. Farid Gharagozloo performed the first major robotic surgery for a pleural mesothelioma patient. He used the technique to perform an extrapleural pneumonectomy.

Gharagozloo currently practices at Florida Hospital Celebration Health. He says the da Vinci Surgical System he uses will change the future of mesothelioma treatment. Using a computer board, surgeons can guide tiny instruments attached to a robotic arm, allowing for more precise movement. It also allows for a more magnified view and better maneuverability during the operation.

Robotic surgery also significantly reduces blood loss. It shortens postoperative recovery time and lowers the stress on the remaining lung after an EPP. This stress is often a major problem when the surgery is done conventionally.

Top Pleural Mesothelioma Surgeons

David Sugarbaker

Lung Institute at Baylor College of Medicine

Known as Mr. Mesothelioma, Dr. David Sugarbaker is regarded as the country’s foremost authority on pleural mesothelioma. He pioneered a surgery that significantly improved survival rates and revolutionized how the cancer is treated. He has served as the director of several mesothelioma programs including the International Mesothelioma Program.

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.

Rodney Landreneau

UPMC Altoona Hillman Cancer Center
  • Former director of Allegheny Hospital’s Esophageal and Lung Institute.
  • Also directed the University of Pittsburgh’s Lung Cancer Program.
  • Opened his specialized practice in 2015.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Surgery

Peritoneal mesothelioma accounts for less than a quarter of all mesothelioma cases. It is an uncommon variant of an already rare cancer. Left untreated, it is also more aggressive than the other types of mesothelioma. It wasn’t long ago that nearly everyone diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma survived only six months on average.

Today, however, peritoneal mesothelioma patients can benefit from one of the greatest modern advancements in mesothelioma treatment: The HIPEC procedure. Nearly half of peritoneal patients treated with this special combination of surgery and chemotherapy live beyond five years.

Diagnosing Peritoneal Mesothelioma and Easing Symptoms

A paracentesis is a minor surgical procedure that can serve a diagnostic or palliative purpose. Cancer may cause fluid to build up in the peritoneal cavity, the space between the two membranes that separate the abdominal organs from the abdominal wall. Doctors can drain the fluid through a hollow needle to relieve pressure on nearby organs. Peritoneal fluid buildup is also known as ascites, and this procedure is sometimes called an abdominal tap or an ascitic tap.

Doctors can examine ascitic fluid to confirm a diagnosis of peritoneal mesothelioma. Ascites, also known as peritoneal effusion, often reoccurs with peritoneal mesothelioma. Repeated therapeutic paracentesis procedures can be administered as palliative care for patients with advanced stages of this disease.

Removing Peritoneal Mesothelioma Tumors

Nearly 40 percent of peritoneal mesothelioma patients qualify for tumor-removing surgery. The most effective treatment for this disease combines a peritonectomy with a HIPEC procedure.

Peritonectomy

In this procedure, surgeons remove the diseased parts of the peritoneal lining of the abdomen. Then they perform 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.

Learn More About Peritonectomy

HIPEC Treatment

Hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) is given immediately after the debulking phase of the peritonectomy. Mesothelioma specialists pump a heated mixture of chemotherapy drugs directly into the abdominal cavity. They leave it there for up to two hours so it can be absorbed by any remaining cancer cells.

HIPEC has fewer side effects than oral or intravenous chemotherapy because the drugs are not injected directly into the bloodstream. Targeting chemotherapy in this way allows doctors to use much stronger drugs against the cancer. Some of the chemotherapy used does get absorbed into the bloodstream. But, this causes less severe side effects than intravenous chemotherapy.

Learn More About Hipec Treatment

“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.”

Isabel De La Camara, peritoneal mesothelioma survivor diagnosed in 2008

Top Peritoneal Mesothelioma Surgeons

Paul H. Sugarbaker

Washington (D.C.) Cancer Institute at Washington Hospital 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.

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.

Joel Baumgartner

UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center
  • One of America’s most innovative young surgeons.
  • Expertise in the use of hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC).
  • Came to Moores from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Pericardial Mesothelioma Surgery

Pericardial mesothelioma patients may experience chest pain, dyspnea (shortness of breath) and coughing. These symptoms are because of a buildup of fluid in the heart lining. A pericardiocentesis can effectively remove fluid buildup to relieve these symptoms.

Unfortunately, pericardial fluid rarely contains malignant cells when mesothelioma is present. This procedure is ineffective for diagnosis.

The tumor-removing surgery available for 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, before they cause deadly complications.

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

Certain hospitals perform more of these surgeries than others. For example, surgeons at Cleveland Clinic follow the guidance of Dr. Allan Klein, director of the hospital’s Center for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Pericardial Diseases.

Meanwhile, Dr. Jae K. Oh, the director of Cardiac Imaging and the Pericardial Disease Clinic at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, is instrumental in pericardial mesothelioma surgeries performed there.

Mesothelioma Surgery Side Effects

The most common side effects of mesothelioma surgery are pain, swelling or infection at the incision site. Whenever a foreign object, such as a needle, knife or tube, is placed into the body, swelling and drainage usually occur. In fact, open drainage is recommended during the healing process.

Mild swelling, draining and bruising of the injured tissues are typical. These side effects will usually resolve themselves on their own within a few days or weeks.

Other side effects of surgery include:
  • Bleeding

    Most patients will experience minimal bleeding that poses no threat to overall health. The body will be able to regenerate any blood that has been lost. During recovery, overstretching or otherwise damaging the incision area can result in bleeding. If bleeding becomes extensive, seek immediate medical attention.

  • Fatigue

    Even after anesthesia wears off, patients may still feel fatigued from the basic bodily stress that occurs with an invasive procedure. This is especially true after a major operation such as EPP or P/D. The fatigue may be intensified if the patient does not eat enough food or get enough rest to restore the body’s energy levels.

  • Cardiac complications

    Mesothelioma surgeries performed 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 any symptoms occur in excess, you should contact your doctor. Excessive inflammation or foul-smelling drainage at the surgery site may be a sign of infection. Other signs of infection include redness and a warm or tingling sensation. Postoperative infection should be controlled under a doctor’s care. It is imperative to report infection immediately to prevent it from becoming fatal.

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 might experience after surgery. Before you leave the hospital, your doctor will provide a prescription for an oral pain medication.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications may be recommended to relieve mild pain. These include acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve). OTC medications should not be taken after surgery without specific instructions from your doctor.

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Karen Selby, RN and Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center

Karen Selby joined Asbestos.com in 2009. She is a registered nurse with a background in oncology and thoracic surgery and was the 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. Read More

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Last Modified July 3, 2018
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