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

3,000+

Mesothelioma cases diagnosed yearly

75% of cases

Account for pleural mesothelioma

20-50 Years

Time for mesothelioma to develop

65 or Older

Most common age of diagnosis

Mesothelioma Symptoms

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)
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness in the muscles
Read More About Symptoms
Fruits and vegetables that help fight mesothelioma cancer
Free Nutrition Guide
Learn about healthy eating with mesothelioma and take control of your diet. Get quick and easy recipes to ease cancer symptoms.

Mesothelioma Causes

The primary cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. This exposure can happen from repeated use of asbestos-contaminated consumer products such as talc. Asbestos in the workplace, homes, schools, military structures and naval ships also leads to dangerous exposure. Mesothelioma cancer develops decades after asbestos exposure occurs because it takes time for asbestos fibers to cause the damage that leads to cancer.

How Mesothelioma Develops

  1. A person inhales or swallows microscopic airborne asbestos fibers.
  2. The asbestos fibers become lodged in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart.
  3. Embedded fibers damage mesothelial cells and cause inflammation.
  4. Over time, tumors form on the damaged mesothelium, leading to mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma developing in the pleura, peritoneum and pericardium
Mesothelioma tumors develop in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart.

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.

  • Veterans
  • Firefighters
  • Auto mechanics
  • Chimney sweeps
  • Miners
  • Construction workers
  • HVAC technicians
  • Textile mill workers
  • Electricians
  • Family members
Read More About Causes
Colonel Doug Thomas and wife Tiffany
"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."
U.S. Army Col. Doug Thomas
Pleural Mesothelioma Survivor

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 Mesothelioma

    Pleural 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 Mesothelioma

    Peritoneal 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 Mesothelioma

    Pericardial 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 Mesothelioma

    Testicular 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

Diagnosing Mesothelioma

Several procedures may be used in the diagnostic process, but a biopsy is the key mesothelioma test to confirm a diagnosis. An early mesothelioma diagnosis in the cancer’s first stages may increase a patient’s eligibility for all treatment options.

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.
Biopsies
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.
Staging
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.
Lawyer showing paperwork to an elderly couple
Get Help Paying for Treatment
Find out which types of financial support you may qualify for, including trust fund payouts, prescription assistance, legal claims, discounted lodging and more.

Mesothelioma Cell Types

There are three cell types of mesothelioma named for the cancerous cells found in the tumors: Epithelioid, sarcomatoid and biphasic. Some are more common and respond well to treatments. Others are rarer and more resistant to therapies.
  • Epithelial mesothelioma cells

    Epithelioid

    These 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
  • Sarcomatoid mesothelioma cells

    Sarcomatoid

    Cells 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
  • Biphasic mesothelioma cells

    Biphasic

    This 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 1

    The 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 2

    Tumors 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 3

    Cancer 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 4

    Tumors 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
Jacques Fontaine, Moffitt Cancer Center
Patients who have Stage 1 mesothelioma may be candidates for surgery to have the cancer removed.
Dr. Jacques Fontaine
Moffitt Cancer Center

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.

Key Factors

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.

Percentage of mesothelioma patients who survive at least one year

Survivor Stories

Mesothelioma survivors Tamron Little, Andy A. and many others enjoy sharing their stories of survival and cancer journeys with fellow mesothelioma survivors. Reading how these amazing people beat the odds inspires other survivors to live longer, healthier and fuller lives.
  • Tamron Little
    Peritoneal Mesothelioma Survivor
    Diagnosed in 2017, Tamron credits her survival to an early diagnosis, surgery, heated chemotherapy, and the medical care from a mesothelioma specialist.
  • Andy A.
    Pleural Mesothelioma Survivor
    Andy reported good results after participating in a clinical trial for the experimental immunotherapy amatuximab.

Mesothelioma Treatment Options

Mesothelioma cancer is treated with conventional therapies such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, according to the latest study in the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Emerging cancer treatments, including immunotherapy, are also available for some patients. Though not every patient is eligible for each type of mesothelioma cancer treatment, most patients can benefit from palliative care to help manage symptoms.
  • Surgery

    These 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.
  • Chemotherapy

    More 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 Therapy

    Radiation 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.
  • Immunotherapy

    Immunotherapy 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 Trials

    Researchers 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 Doctors

Mesothelioma cancer specialists encompass a number of specialties, including surgery, medical and radiation oncology, radiology, pathology and palliative care. All can be part of a patient’s treatment plan. Working with an experienced mesothelioma doctor can make all the difference.
More About Mesothelioma Doctors

Top Treatment Centers

The most well-regarded treatment centers attract people from across the country. Renowned for their latest technology and groundbreaking research, these centers connect you with a multidisciplinary team of physicians with years of experience in treating asbestos-related diseases.
  • 12902 Magnolia Drive, Tampa, FL 33612 Doctors in Hospital: 10
  • 75 Francis Street, Boston, MA 02115 Doctors in Hospital: 5
  • 1515 Holcombe Boulevard, Houston, TX 77030 Doctors in Hospital: 8
By submitting, you agree to our privacy policy and disclaimer. Our Patient Advocates may contact you via phone, email and/or text.
More About Treatment Centers

Covering the Cost of Treatment Expenses

The high cost of cancer treatment shouldn’t limit your treatment options. Even those with health insurance pay thousands in out-of-pocket costs. A lawyer specializing in asbestos and mesothelioma cases can tell you more about asbestos trust funds, lawsuits, settlements and other compensation options, including VA claims and Social Security Disability Insurance.
Stethoscope on clipboard
Find Your Mesothelioma Specialist
Our Patient Advocates have built relationships with top doctors across the country and can help you get an appointment quickly.

Mesothelioma Support and Resources

Many forms of support for mesothelioma patients and their families are available free of charge. Your family may benefit from support groups, resources for caregivers, access to financial assistance and free medical information to help you understand the diagnosis, learn how to cope and seek compensation.
  • Join Our Support Group
    Share 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 Yourself
    Stay 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 Awareness
    Understand how you and your loved ones can raise mesothelioma awareness and advocate for others who are going through the same cancer journey.
  • Seek Caregiver Support
    Ask 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?
You may be eligible to seek compensation for mesothelioma from asbestos trust funds, lawsuits or VA claims. Speaking with a mesothelioma lawyer is the best way to learn about the legal options you may have if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma.
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