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Malignant Mesothelioma: Chemotherapy

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy (chemo) uses anticancer medicines to kill cancer cells. The medicines are made to attack and kill cancer cells, which grow quickly. Some normal cells also grow quickly. Because of this, chemotherapy can also harm those cells. This can cause side effects.

When might chemotherapy be used for mesothelioma? 

Chemo is part of the treatment for many people with mesothelioma. Whether or not you get chemo will depend mainly on these factors:

  • The stage (extent) and location of the cancer

  • The goal of treatment

  • Your age and general health

  • Concerns you have about side effects

  • What treatments you have had in the past (if any)

Your healthcare provider may recommend chemo to treat mesothelioma in certain situations. These include the following:

  • Before surgery if your cancer has not yet spread to other parts of the body. Chemo can be used to try to shrink the tumor to make surgery easier. This is called neoadjuvant therapy. 

  • After surgery to try to kill any remaining cancer cells. This is known as adjuvant chemotherapy.

  • As the main treatment (alone or with radiation) if you have cancer that has spread, or if you aren’t healthy enough for surgery.

How is chemotherapy given for mesothelioma?

Before treatment starts, you’ll meet with a medical oncologist. This is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer with medicines such as chemo. The doctor will talk about your treatment options with you and explain what to expect. 

For mesothelioma, chemo medicines can be given in one of these ways: 

  • Intravenous (IV). The medicine is given through a small needle that has been put into a vein. It may drip in slowly over several hours, or it may be given more quickly over a few minutes.

  • Intraperitoneal. For people with peritoneal mesothelioma that’s treated with surgery, chemo may be given directly into the abdomen. This can be done during the surgery after the tumors have been removed). This involves using a machine that circulates the chemo in and out of the abdomen using tubes (catheters). The machine also heats the chemo to help it work better. This is sometimes known as hyperthermic intraperitoneal  chemotherapy (HIPEC).

IV chemotherapy is normally given in an outpatient setting. That means that you get it at a hospital, clinic, or healthcare provider's office, and you can go home after treatment. Less often, you may need to stay in the hospital during treatment. Your healthcare provider will watch you for reactions during your treatments. Since each of your chemo treatments may last for a while, you may want to take along something that’s comforting to you, such as music to listen to. You may also want to bring something to keep you busy, such as a book or mobile device.

You’ll receive chemo in cycles. This is done to reduce the damage to healthy cells and to give them a chance to recover. Each cycle consists of one or more days of treatment, followed by some time to rest. Cycles normally last three or four weeks. Most people get four to six cycles as part of their initial treatment. This usually lasts for several months. Your healthcare provider will talk about your schedule with you.

What common medicines are used to treat mesothelioma?

These are some common chemo medicines used to treat mesothelioma:

  • Cisplatin

  • Carboplatin

  • Doxorubicin

  • Gemcitabine

  • Methotrexate

  • Mitomycin

  • Pemetrexed

  • Vinorelbine

Pemetrexed plus cisplatin or carboplatin is often the first treatment. Some people may only receive one chemo medicine. These include people who aren’t healthy enough to get two medicines or people who have already gotten chemo.

What are common side effects of chemotherapy?

Side effects of chemo are different for everyone. They vary based on the medicine you receive. Below is a list of the some of the most common side effects from chemotherapy. Ask your healthcare provider what side effects to watch for.

Hair loss

If you have hair loss, the hair will often grow back after the treatment stops.

Nausea and vomiting

This side effect can often be controlled with medicines. Ask your healthcare provider about it.

Mouth sores

Chemo can sometimes cause mouth sores. This might make it hard for you to eat or swallow. It's important to keep your mouth very clean and avoid foods and substances that could irritate your mouth.


If you have diarrhea, take antidiarrheal medicines as prescribed by your healthcare provider. You may also need to make changes in your diet.

Loss of appetite or changes in the way things taste

Talk to your healthcare provider if you find you’re having trouble eating or are losing weight. There are often ways to help.

Increased risk of infection

During your chemo treatments, your white blood cell count may become low. This means your immune system won’t be working as well as it normally does. It’s a good idea for you to avoid people who have illnesses that you could catch. It’s also a good idea to take extra safety measures against cuts and scrapes that could become infected. Your healthcare provider will check your blood counts regularly during your treatment. Let your healthcare provider know if you have any signs of an infection. Symptoms include fever, sore throat, a new cough, or burning during urination.

Bleeding and bruising more easily

Chemo can also lower your blood platelet counts. Platelets are needed to help the blood clot well. 


You may feel tired while getting chemo. This normally goes away once treatment ends. 

Some other side effects can also be seen with certain chemo medicines. For example, cisplatin, carboplatin, and some other medicines can cause nerve damage (neuropathy ). This can lead to pain, tingling, and numbness in your hands and feet. 

Working with your healthcare provider

It's important to know which medicines you're taking. Write your medicines down, and ask your healthcare team how they work and what side effects they might have.

Talk with your healthcare providers about what signs to look for and when to call them. For example, chemotherapy can make you more likely to get infections. Make sure you know what number to call with questions. Is there a different number for evenings and weekends?

It may be helpful to keep a diary of your side effects. A written list will make it easier for you to remember your questions when you go to your appointments. It will also make it easier for you to work with your healthcare team to make a plan to manage your side effects.


Online Medical Reviewer: Alteri, Rick, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Levin, Mark, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2016
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.
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