Malignant mesothelioma is a rare, asbestos-related cancer that forms on the thin protective tissues that cover the lungs and abdomen. A combined approach to treatment is helping patients improve their survival and ease symptoms.

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  • About

    • Causes: Asbestos exposure, radiation exposure, SV40 polio vaccine
    • Latency Period: It can take 20-50 years after asbestos exposure for mesothelioma to develop.
    • Number of Cases: 2,000 to 3,000 in the U.S. annually
  • Symptoms

    • Pleural Mesothelioma: Shortness of breath, chest pains, dry cough, pleural effusion
    • Peritoneal Mesothelioma: Abdominal pain, abdominal swelling, weight loss

Most mesothelioma patients are diagnosed with the pleural disease type, which forms on the lining of the lungs. The cancer also can develop around the abdominal cavity or heart. Doctors diagnose an estimated 3,000 cases of mesothelioma annually in the U.S., and the majority of those are traced to job-related asbestos exposure.

Although asbestos use declined significantly in recent decades in this country, the incidence of malignant mesothelioma remains steady. That difference can be traced to the distinct latency period linked to the cancer. The disease can take anywhere from 20 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos before it shows obvious symptoms and an oncologist can make a definitive diagnosis. While no cure for the disease exists and the prognosis is typically poor, researchers made significant progress in recent years in understanding the cancer and developing new treatment options and alternative therapies.

How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?

Mesothelioma typically develops after exposure to asbestos in the workplace – in industrial settings, shipyards, auto repair shops, old houses, schools and public buildings. While it usually takes long-term exposure to put someone at risk, short-term and one-time exposures are also known to cause mesothelioma cancer.

Body Inhaling Asbestos
Asbestos inhalation occurs
Asbestos Fibers lodging in the mesothelial tissue
Fibers lodge in mesothelial tissue
 Asbestos Fibers in the mesothelial tissue
Fibers cause cellular damage, resulting in tumor growth

Fast Fact: 70-80 percent of all mesothelioma cases are caused by asbestos exposure at work.

When microscopic asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed, the human body has difficulty destroying or getting rid of them. Over decades, the trapped fibers cause biological changes that result in inflammation, scarring and genetic damage. The area most susceptible to these fibers is the lining of the lungs, called the pleura, although fibers also can become trapped in the lining of the abdominal cavity (peritoneum) or heart (pericardium). Once fibers cause biological damage, the stage is set for the decades-long latency period for the development of malignant mesothelioma.

What Factors Affect Your Prognosis?

Your prognosis, or survival outlook, is most affected by the stage of your cancer. Early- and late-stage cancers have treatment options that can help. Many patients can live longer than their doctors first estimate, and such outcomes depend on a number of prognostic factors.

Factors That Affect Prognosis Include:

  • Stage of cancer
  • Type of mesothelioma
  • Tumor cell type
  • Overall health
  • Gender
  • Size and location of tumor
  • Blood characteristics

What Are the Different Types of Mesothelioma?

Pleural mesothelioma is the most common type of the disease, representing about 75 percent of cases. Peritoneal is the second most common type, consisting of about 10 to 20 percent of cases. Approximately 1 percent of cases are of the pericardial variety. Another rare type known as testicular mesothelioma represents less than 1 percent of cases.

What Are the Common Symptoms of Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma symptoms can be so mild that few people notice or recognize them, and many don't experience any of them until later stages of the cancer. Fatigue and slight pain around the tumor may surface in early stages. Late-stage symptoms are more noticeable and commonly provoke someone to visit the doctor.

These late-onset signs can include shortness of breath, chronic pain near the tumor, weight loss, fluid buildup or bowel obstruction. Effective therapies can relieve symptoms, and some treatments, like talc pleurodesis, can even prevent symptom recurrence.

Symptoms you may experience include:

  • Fatigue
  • Pain near tumor
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry cough
  • Weight loss
  • Fluid buildup
  • Bowel obstruction

How Is Mesothelioma Diagnosed?

All patients have a unique path to a diagnosis, but the most important factors to an accurate diagnosis are imaging scans and biopsies. Doctors use several tests to diagnose malignant mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma Imaging Scan

Imaging Scans

Most people initially undergo a basic chest X-ray to check for any abnormalities. If an abnormal growth is detected, a doctor will recommend a more detailed imaging scan such as a PET scan, CT scan or MRI.

Mesothelioma Biopsy


If cancer is suspected, a biopsy will be recommended. In a biopsy, a tissue sample is collected to confirm the presence of mesothelioma cells.

Blod Test

Blood Tests

Blood tests are also available, but they do not confirm the presence of mesothelioma. Research and development is underway to determine if blood tests can aid in early diagnosis for at-risk former asbestos workers.

Doctor Going over mesothelioma stage with patient


There are at least five staging systems doctors use to stage pleural mesothelioma. In 1995, the International Mesothelioma Interest Group (IMIG) developed the IMIG staging system, which is the most widely used today. There are currently no universal staging systems for the cancer's other types.

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Questions About Mesothelioma? We Can Help!

Meet the Survivors

Despite the often poor prognosis of malignant mesothelioma patients, there are a number of encouraging stories of success – accounts of people who live to celebrate special days with spouses, kids and grandkids. Each survivor has a tale to tell, and there is something to take away from every story.

Patricia Hargrett

Patricia H.

Peritoneal Survivor

"We needed the right information so that we could be prepared, so we could understand what we would be going through, what we needed to do."

John Conway

John C.

Pleural Survivor

"We're very fortunate to know the Veterans Department and the whole team at We were in dire straits, and they gave us hope."

Brian H.

Brian H.

Pleural Survivor

"So much support made me realize I wasn't alone in this fight. This is a path you don't want to try and walk alone. You have to let others into your life."

Jacob H.

Jacob H.

Peritoneal Survivor

"I can't do everything I once could, but I'm still out there getting around. I was fortunate in the care I received. And I don't mind sharing my good fortune."

Mavis N.

Mavis N.

Pleural Survivor

"When you are diagnosed, don't listen to the doom and gloom. Fight with all your might. Don't worry if you feel selfish, as you are important."

Sandy M.

Sandy M.

Pleural Survivor

"I don't dwell on this disease. I try to forget what I have. It just taps me on the shoulder and lets me know when I climb stairs, or walk too fast and get out of breath."

What Treatment Options Are Available?

The leading treatment options for mesothelioma include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Many specialists prefer to combine two or more of these treatments, an approach known as multimodal therapy. Clinical trials show this approach has improved survival rates.

Palliative treatments that ease symptoms are quite common for patients of all stages, and experimental therapies like immunotherapy show progress for the future. Additionally, many survivors tout less-traditional alternative treatments for helping them to live longer.

Surgery Icon


Curative surgery is available for early stage patients, while palliative surgery is best for late-stage patients to help ease symptoms.

Chemotherapy Icon


Chemotherapy is a standard treatment to kill malignant cells, shrink tumors, prevent recurrence and relieve symptoms.

Radiation Icon


Radiation therapy is used alone or in combination with chemotherapy or surgery to kill cancer cells, manage tumors and prevent tumor seeding.

How Do I Pay For Treatment?

Treatment is expensive, and insurance companies may not cover the cost of diagnostic tests or experimental therapies. Patients who don't have medical insurance will face an even harder battle. If you or a loved one is diagnosed, consider taking steps to protect your finances.

Financial expert and Patient Advocate Manager Joe Lahav knows the ins and outs of all the financial aid options available to patients, including mesothelioma trust funds and grants to cover travel, treatment expenses and housing. Let him review your information and determine if you qualify for free financial assistance.

How Does Mesothelioma Affect Veterans?

Because asbestos use in the military was so rampant from 1940 to 1980, veterans from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces who served during those years are now at high risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions. Job duties known for high rates of harmful exposures include pipefitting, mechanical work, equipment maintenance and shipyard work.

Need Help Filing a Claim for VA Benefits?

If you or a loved one was injured by asbestos exposure in the military, U.S. Army Capt. Aaron Munz can help you navigate the VA claims process and get the benefits you deserve. Munz, who joined The Mesothelioma Center as Veterans Department Director in 2015, is a decorated veteran who served nine years in combat and earned the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He understands the challenges veterans face when diagnosed with mesothelioma, and can answer any questions about the disease and the complicated filing process for VA claims.

My Loved One Was Just Diagnosed. What's Next?

Every cancer diagnosis comes with a wide range of physical and emotional challenges, and it's not just patients who are affected. Sometimes family members and loved ones need support too. We can get you free resources to help you move forward, whether you're a new caregiver or a concerned spouse or family member.

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Request a comprehensive mesothelioma guide to gain a deeper understanding of the cancer and how you can help your loved one in this difficult time. We provide free must-read books that answer frequently asked questions about mesothelioma, too. Facebook page

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Visit our Facebook page for the latest in survivor stories, treatment news and inspirational images. While you're there, connect with other members of the mesothelioma community who understand exactly what you're going through.

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Order a free wristband today to support your loved one. By wearing a mesothelioma wristband you can help bring awareness to this deadly cancer and also bring to light the dangers of asbestos exposure. Order today and have them shipped overnight.

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Join Our Support Group

Learn how to help your loved one cope with mesothelioma by participating in our monthly support group. You can participate online or over the phone to watch a presentation by our licensed mental health counselor, Dana Nolan, and share your experiences with other patients and caregivers.

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