What Is Mesothelioma Cancer?
Malignant mesothelioma is a rare, incurable, asbestos-related cancer. Asbestos is unsafe in any amount, but mesothelioma typically develops after prolonged long-term exposure to large amounts of the carcinogen.
Most diagnosed cases are pleural mesothelioma, which forms on the lining of the lungs. But mesothelioma tumors can also form on the linings of the abdomen, heart and testes.
Key Facts About Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma cases diagnosed yearly
75% of cases
Account for pleural mesothelioma
Time for mesothelioma to develop
65 or Older
Most common age of diagnosis
Symptoms of mesothelioma appear when tumors spread, grow and press against the chest wall and the abdominal cavity. Early diagnosis can help patients’ chances of benefitting from more treatment options. Because symptoms are like those of other conditions, an initial misdiagnosis is common. It’s important to be aware of your history of asbestos exposure and discuss it with your doctor as soon as possible.
Common Mesothelioma Symptoms
- Dry cough
- Shortness of breath
- Respiratory complications
- Chest or abdominal pain
- Fever or night sweats
- Pleural effusion (fluid around the lungs)
- Weakness in the muscles
How Mesothelioma Develops
- A person inhales or swallows microscopic airborne asbestos fibers.
- The asbestos fibers become lodged in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart.
- Embedded fibers damage mesothelial cells and cause inflammation.
- Over time, tumors form on the damaged mesothelium, leading to mesothelioma.
People Most at Risk of Developing Mesothelioma
People most at risk of developing mesothelioma cancer handled asbestos for a prolonged period of time or were exposed to large amounts of occupational asbestos. Secondhand exposure is also common, especially among the spouses and children of people who worked with asbestos. Veterans were also exposed while serving in the U.S. armed forces.
- Auto mechanics
- Chimney sweeps
- Construction workers
- HVAC technicians
- Textile mill workers
- Family members
"When I was diagnosed with mesothelioma, it made me realize the disproportionate number of veterans who develop cancer. Based on the statistics, we need to ensure veterans are being screened."
Types of Mesothelioma
The four types of mesothelioma are defined by where tumors develop in the body. The most common types are pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma. Pericardial and testicular mesothelioma account for less than 2% of cases combined.
Tumors form in the mesothelium, which is the thin protective lining that covers the lungs, abdomen, heart and testes. The mesothelium goes by different names depending on the parts of the body it covers. The pleura surrounds the lungs and chest wall, the peritoneum covers the abdominal cavity and organs, the pericardium covers the heart, and the tunica vaginalis lines the testes.
Prognosis, symptoms and treatment options vary by mesothelioma type.
Pleural MesotheliomaPleural mesothelioma accounts for 75% of cases. It forms on the soft tissue covering the lungs. Multimodal therapy combining two or more therapies remains the best treatment approach.Learn About Pleural
Peritoneal MesotheliomaPeritoneal mesothelioma accounts for less than 20% of cases. It develops on the lining surrounding the abdomen. This type responds best to a combination of surgery and heated chemotherapy.Learn About Peritoneal
Pericardial MesotheliomaPericardial mesothelioma accounts for 1% of cases. It forms on the soft tissue around the heart. A multimodal approach of surgery and chemotherapy offers the best chance of survival.Learn About Pericardial
Testicular MesotheliomaTesticular mesothelioma accounts for less than 1% of cases. It develops on the tunica vaginalis, which is the lining of the testes. This type responds best to surgery followed by chemotherapy.Learn About Testicular
Common Mesothelioma Testing Procedures
- Imaging Scans
- Most people initially undergo a basic chest X-ray to check for any abnormalities. If an abnormal growth or fluid around the lung is detected, doctors will recommend a more detailed imaging scan such as a PET scan, CT scan or MRI.
- If cancer is suspected, doctors will recommend taking a sample of tissue, which is also known as a biopsy. Doctors use this tissue sample to definitively confirm the presence of malignant mesothelioma cells.
- Blood Tests
- Blood tests may be used but do not confirm the presence of mesothelioma. Researchers are evaluating if blood tests can aid in the early diagnosis of at-risk former asbestos workers.
- An important part of the diagnostic process is determining the cancer’s stage of growth. Doctors use imaging scans and biopsies to assess the growth and spread of mesothelioma tumors. The TNM staging system is the most commonly used system for staging malignant mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma Cell Types
EpithelioidThese cells are the most responsive to treatment. This type of mesothelioma accounts for 70% of mesothelioma diagnoses. It also leads to improved prognosis and life expectancy.Learn More About Epithelioid
SarcomatoidCells of this type are least responsive to treatment. Patients with these cell types have poorer diagnoses and shorter life expectancies. This mesothelioma type accounts for 10% of all cases.Learn More About Sarcomatoid
BiphasicThis is a combination of epithelioid and sarcomatoid cells. It’s less responsive to treatment. Prognosis and life expectancy depend on the ratio of both cell types. It accounts for 30% to 40% of cases.Learn More About Biphasic
Stages of Mesothelioma
Staging tracks malignant mesothelioma tumor growth and helps doctors make a treatment plan and predict patient prognosis. The stages of mesothelioma range from 1 to 4 and are based on tumor size and location.
Early-stage mesothelioma is more confined to one site, while late-stage mesothelioma shows tumors spreading beyond the chest or abdominal cavity. Staging is an important part of determining treatment.
Stage 1The cancer is localized. Surgery is most effective at this stage. Survival rate is higher. A patient’s median life expectancy at stage 1 is 22.2 months.Learn More About Stage 1
Stage 2Tumors have spread from the original location into adjacent structures. Surgery is still an option. Median life expectancy at stage 2 is 20 months.Learn More About Stage 2
Stage 3Cancer has spread into regional lymph nodes. Surgery is an option in select cases. The patient’s median life expectancy at stage 3 is 17.9 months.Learn More About Stage 3
Stage 4Tumors have spread into distant organs. Chemotherapy and immunotherapy ease symptoms. Median life expectancy at stage 4 is 14.9 months.Learn More About Stage 4
Patients who have Stage 1 mesothelioma may be candidates for surgery to have the cancer removed.
Mesothelioma Life Expectancy and Prognosis
When doctors discuss a mesothelioma cancer patient’s prognosis, they are determining the overall outlook for that specific individual. Typically, when patients inquire about their mesothelioma prognosis, what they’re interested in is information about life expectancy.
While there is no cure, the outlook for each patient varies depending on factors such as the patient’s age, overall health, how early a diagnosis is made and if their prognosis can be improved with treatment and the adoption of a healthy lifestyle.
Stage and cell type are factors that most affect mesothelioma prognosis. Age, gender and overall health also affect outlook. Younger patients and women have a better mesothelioma prognosis than older men. People diagnosed with the peritoneal mesothelioma type also have a greater chance of survival.
Ways to Improve Prognosis
Eating a nutrient-rich diet, staying healthy, undergoing cancer treatments and making healthier lifestyle choices can improve malignant mesothelioma prognosis and well-being. For example, quitting smoking and receiving flu and pneumonia vaccinations improves lung function and overall health.
Tamron LittlePeritoneal Mesothelioma Survivor
Andy A.Pleural Mesothelioma Survivor
Mesothelioma Treatment Options
SurgeryThese procedures are used for diagnosing disease, removing tumors and easing pain. Extrapleural pneumonectomy or pleurectomy and decortication surgeries offer the greatest chance of survival for patients with strong health and limited cancer spread.
ChemotherapyMore than 70% of patients undergo chemotherapy. The therapy’s strong drugs shrink tumors and kill cancer cells but also come with treatment side effects.
Radiation TherapyRadiation therapy can be administered at any cancer stage. Doctors use it to reduce pain and slow tumor growth. It is often combined with surgery and chemotherapy.
ImmunotherapyImmunotherapy drugs control cancer growth and help some mesothelioma patients live longer. Doctors use immunotherapy at any stage, and success rates vary for each patient.
Tumor Treating Fields (TTFields)This FDA-approved cancer therapy treats pleural mesothelioma. TTFields works in combination with chemotherapy to limit cancer growth and improve survival.
Clinical TrialsResearchers and doctors offer these experimental therapies to eligible patients across the nation. Mesothelioma clinical trials can lead to new or improved treatments.
Finding Specialized Treatment
Most doctors have never encountered mesothelioma because it is a rare cancer. Doctors who focus on mesothelioma at specialty treatment centers provide patients the best chances of extending life and improving prognosis.
A study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine confirmed that cancer care requires “skills of specialty physicians such as medical oncologists, surgeons and radiation oncologists."
Top Treatment Centers
Covering the Cost of Treatment Expenses
Mesothelioma Support and Resources
Join Our Support GroupShare your story or listen to other mesothelioma patients, caregivers, and family members in our exclusive support group hosted by The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com.
Educate YourselfStay updated on the latest mesothelioma news through our news posts, blogs, webinars, newsletters, informational books, medically reviewed website and other resources for patients and their loved ones.
Raise AwarenessUnderstand how you and your loved ones can raise mesothelioma awareness and advocate for others who are going through the same cancer journey.
Seek Caregiver SupportAsk our Patient Advocates about the types of caregiver support we provide, including tips to avoid burnout, overcome hurdles and guidance on the caregiver benefits.
Helping more than 50% of all mesothelioma patients
Our Patient Advocates at The Mesothelioma Center help the majority of patients diagnosed with mesothelioma every year. Their experience means they know what to expect and how to help you and your loved ones navigate through your cancer journey. Our team specializes in cancer care, nursing, treatment options, veterans benefits, financial resources, hospice and more.
Common Questions About Mesothelioma
- Is mesothelioma a cancer?
Mesothelioma is a type of asbestos cancer that develops in the tissue that lines the lungs, chest cavity and abdomen. Asbestos exposure can also cause lung cancer. Characteristics of mesothelioma and lung cancer include rapid, uncontrolled cell growth in tumors that impair the function of the lungs and other vital organs.
- What are the symptoms of mesothelioma?
The most common mesothelioma symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain, dry cough, wheezing and fatigue. Advanced symptoms may include fever, night sweats, muscle weakness and certain respiratory complications.
- How is mesothelioma treated?
Mesothelioma is treated using chemotherapy, surgery, radiation therapy, Tumor Treating Fields and multimodal therapy, which is a combination of two or more of these treatments. Clinical research trials offer experimental therapies such as immunotherapy, gene therapy and phototherapy.
- How long do mesothelioma patients live?
The average mesothelioma life expectancy is about one year. Patients who are diagnosed early and elect treatment may live for several years. The five-year survival rate is around 10%.
- What are my options for compensation if I have been diagnosed with mesothelioma?
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