No one wants to be diagnosed with cancer, of any type, but to receive a mesothelioma diagnosis is particularly heartbreaking. This kind of cancer, which is most often caused by asbestos exposure, is aggressive, deadly, and for most patients incurable. Sometimes, though, a patient lives through this awful cancer and shares her story with the world. One of those patients is Katherine Keys, a ten-year mesothelioma survivor.

What is Mesothelioma?
When Katherine got sick, her symptoms seemed to her like a bad case of the flu. She got worse and worse and finally ended up in the emergency room. She didn’t have the flu. She had mesothelioma. This is a type of cancer that attacks the mesothelium, a thin, double-layer of tissue that covers most organs throughout the body. The most common form of the cancer originates in the pleura, the part of the mesothelium that is found in the chest cavity.

Mesothelioma is rare, but it is most common in people who were exposed to asbestos. Asbestos was used extensively in many industries until the health hazards were finally realized. It was used especially heavily in construction, and so many older homes still contain asbestos.

The reason that Katherine mistook her symptoms for the flu is that pleural mesothelioma causes symptoms that are very similar to respiratory infections. It is often initially misdiagnosed, because the main symptoms are difficulty breathing, coughing, and chest pains.

Getting a Diagnosis and Prognosis
When Katherine got sick, she was only 49 years old, but many people are not diagnosed with mesothelioma until they are much older. This is because the disease has a long latency period. From the time of the first exposure to asbestos to the diagnosis is, on average, several decades. Katherine was lucky to get her diagnosis so quickly. Many people never get an accurate diagnosis of mesothelioma until it is too late to treat it effectively.

Katherine’s diagnosis was of stage I pleural mesothelioma. Even though she was diagnosed in the earliest stage of the disease, before the cancer has spread, she still did not receive a good prognosis. Mesothelioma spreads quickly and aggressively, and it is extremely difficult to target and kill all the cancer cells. She was told that she had two years or less to live.

An Extreme Treatment for an Extreme Cancer
For many other types of cancers, a stage I diagnosis is reason for hope and often reason to be confident the cancer can be cured. With mesothelioma, on the other hand, no diagnosis is a good one. Still, Katherine had hope that she could beat it and that hope paid off in the end. She chose to go for the most aggressive treatment and the one that would be most likely to achieve remission.

Katherine underwent a radical surgical procedure called extrapleural pneumonectomy. Her surgeon removed the pleura from the side of her chest that was affected by the cancer, as well as the entire lung. She also had some lymph nodes removed, the main way that cancer spreads from one part of the body to another, and part of her diaphragm had to be removed and reconstructed. Her surgery was followed by radiation treatment to target any remaining cancer cells.

Recovery and Remission
After undergoing surgery and radiation, Katherine had a long recovery ahead of her, and she needed to learn to adapt to life with only one lung. She also needed to go to regular checkups to be screened for any recurrence of the cancer. After her first few screenings, there was still no sign of the cancer. After six months, and finally a year, she still had no signs of recurrence. Her doctors declared her cancer-free and in remission, an unlikely outcome for anyone with mesothelioma.

Katherine has remained cancer-free for nearly ten years and, while limited from her surgery, lives life to the fullest. She shares her story in this way to help inspire others and give other cancer patients the hope needed to fight back, to fight to live.