Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is an aggressive, malignant cancer caused when inhaled asbestos fibers lodge in the lining of the lungs (pleural), abdomen (peritoneal) or heart (pericardial). The American Cancer Society records about 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma each year in the U.S.

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Mesothelioma specialist Dr. David Sugarbaker explains how mesothelioma develops.

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This page features: 11 cited research articles

Causes

Exposure to asbestos is the main cause of the cancer.

Mesothelioma develops when a person ingests asbestos, and it causes changes to a person’s DNA.

Our genes, which are made of DNA, control how cells grow, multiply and die. Changes in our genes may cause cells to divide out of control and may lead to cancer.

Malignant mesothelioma CT-scan
Malignant Mesothelioma in the Right Lung

Development of Mesothelioma

  1. A person inhales or swallows airborne asbestos fibers.
  2. The asbestos fibers become lodged in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart.
  3. The embedded fibers damage the mesothelial cells and cause inflammation.
  4. Over time, tumors begin to form on the damaged mesothelium, which is the lining of the abdomen, lung, heart and testes.

Tumors also can be benign (noncancerous). But when tumors are cancerous, doctors call the disease malignant mesothelioma. It is often shortened to mesothelioma.

Read More About Mesothelioma Causes

Symptoms

Common mesothelioma symptoms include:

  • Dry coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Respiratory complications
  • Pain in the chest or abdomen
  • Fever or night sweats
  • Pleural effusion (fluid around the lungs)
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness in the muscles

These mesothelioma symptoms usually do not show until tumors have grown and spread. Mesothelioma latency is 20-50 years. That’s how long it takes from initial exposure to accurate diagnosis. For that reason, many people with mesothelioma are in their 60s or 70s.

You should talk to a mesothelioma specialist soon if you have a history of asbestos exposure and experience these symptoms. An early mesothelioma diagnosis may improve your prognosis and life expectancy.

Read More About Mesothelioma Symptoms

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Types of Mesothelioma

Oncologists name each type of mesothelioma by the location in the body where it develops.

The pleural and peritoneal types of mesothelioma are the most common. Pericardial accounts for 1 percent of cases. Another rare type is testicular mesothelioma. It represents less than 1 percent of all mesotheliomas.

Prognosis, symptoms and treatment options vary by type.

Pleural Mesothelioma

  • Most common type
  • Forms on soft tissue covering the lungs
  • Best treated with a multimodal approach
Learn about pleural mesothelioma

Peritoneal Mesothelioma

  • Less than 20 percent of all cases
  • Develops on lining surrounding the abdomen
  • Responds best to a combination of surgery and heated chemotherapy
Learn about peritoneal mesothelioma

Pericardial Mesothelioma

  • Second-rarest type
  • Forms on soft tissue around the heart
  • Best treated with a multimodal approach
Learn about pericardial mesothelioma

Testicular Mesothelioma

  • Rarest type
  • Develops on the lining of the testes
  • Responds best to surgery
Learn About Testicular Mesothelioma

Who Is Most at Risk of Mesothelioma?

Veterans

Asbestos use in the military was widespread from 1940 to 1980. Veterans from all branches of the U.S. armed forces were at risk of exposure. Navy veterans are most at risk. This branch used the largest quantity of asbestos products.

Occupational Exposure

More than 75 occupations have exposed workers to asbestos. Auto mechanics, textile workers, steel mill workers, construction workers and firefighters are among the most at risk.

Secondary Exposure

Asbestos workers unknowingly carried asbestos fibers on their body and clothing. This resulted in secondary asbestos exposure among residents such as women and children.

Prognosis

40% of mesothelioma patients survive at least 1 year
Source: Cancer.org

The factors that most affect prognosis are stage and cell type. But age, gender and exposure history also affect outlook.

For example, younger patients and women have a better mesothelioma prognosis than older men. People diagnosed with the peritoneal mesothelioma type also have a higher chance of survival. The life expectancy for most patients is about 12 months after diagnosis.

Those who can undergo multimodal therapy, which is a combination of two or more treatments, have an improved prognosis.

Patients can improve prognosis by eating a nutrient-rich diet, undergoing cancer treatments and staying healthy.

Cell types and their role in prognosis and life expectancy:

Epithelioid
These cells are the most responsive to treatment, which improves prognosis and life expectancy. They comprise 50 percent of mesothelioma diagnoses.
Sarcomatoid
These cells are the least responsive to treatment. Patients with this cell type have a poorer prognosis and shorter life expectancy. These cells comprise 10 percent of diagnoses.
Biphasic
A combination of epithelioid and sarcomatoid cells. This type is less responsive to treatment. But prognosis and life expectancy depends on the ratio of both types of cells. This type accounts for 30-40 percent of diagnoses.
Learn how to improve your prognosis

The Four Stages of Mesothelioma

Stage 1

The cancer is localized. Surgery is most effective at this stage. Survival rate is higher. Median life expectancy at stage 1 is 22.2 months.

Learn About Stage 1

Stage 2

Tumors have started to spread from the original location into adjacent structures. Surgery is still an option. Median life expectancy at stage 2 is 20 months.

Learn About Stage 2

Stage 3

Cancer has progressed to a more advanced stage with spread into the regional lymph nodes. Surgery may still be an option. Median life expectancy at stage 3 is 17.9 months.

Learn About Stage 3

Stage 4

Cancer has spread extensively in the area where it developed. Chemotherapy and immunotherapy control symptoms and prolong survival. Median life expectancy at stage 4 is 14.9 months or less.

Learn About Stage 4

Importance of Finding a Mesothelioma Specialist

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer. It represents only 0.3 percent of all cancer diagnoses. Most doctors and oncologists have never encountered it.

A 2009 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine states that cancer care “requires the technical knowledge and skills of specialty physicians such as medical oncologists, surgeons and radiation oncologists.”

Specialty cancer doctors establish:

  • Goals for treatment and prognosis
  • Possible use of chemotherapy
  • First type of treatment
  • Possible participation in clinical trials

These are factors that impact a mesothelioma patient’s survival. That’s why finding a mesothelioma specialist is so important.

Finding a mesothelioma specialty center with experienced mesothelioma doctors is crucial to survival.

Dr. Jacques Fontaine, a world-renowned mesothelioma specialist, discusses mesothelioma exclusively with Asbestos.com.

Top Pleural Specialists

Dr. Abraham Lebenthal, pleural mesothelioma doctor

Abraham Lebenthal

Brigham and Women's Hospital

Dr. Abraham Lebenthal is a respected thoracic surgeon who treats pleural mesothelioma patients at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Boston VA Hospital. Lebenthal worked alongside Dr. David Sugarbaker at Brigham and teaches at Harvard Medical School.

Get in touch
Dr. Robert B. Cameron, pleural mesothelioma doctor

Robert B. Cameron

UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center

Dr. Robert B. Cameron developed a lung-sparing surgery for pleural mesothelioma that not only extends survival, but offers greater quality of life by preserving the lung. Cameron’s surgery has a lower risk of complications and studies report longer survival times.

Get in touch
Dr. Jacques Fontaine, pleural mesothelioma doctor and expert contributor for Asbestos.com

Jacques Fontaine

H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center

Dr. Jacques Fontaine is the Director of the Mesothelioma Research and Treatment Center at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. He specializes in minimally invasive thoracic surgery including robotic surgery. Fontaine became a pleural mesothelioma specialist at Brigham & Women’s Hospital’s International Mesothelioma Program.

Get in touch

Top Peritoneal Specialists

Dr. Paul H. Sugarbaker, peritoneal mesothelioma doctor

Paul H. Sugarbaker

Washington Cancer Center

Dr. Paul Sugarbaker is the country’s leading expert on peritoneal mesothelioma. He developed the widely renowned cytoreductive surgery and heated chemotherapy technique that changed the landscape of peritoneal cancer treatment. Many people with peritoneal mesothelioma are alive today because of Sugarbaker’s innovations.

Get in touch
Dr. W. Charles Conway, peritoneal mesothelioma doctor & expert contributor for Asbestos.com

W. Charles Conway

Ridley-Tree Cancer Center

Dr. W. Charles Conway is an expert in peritoneal mesothelioma and the Director of Surgical Oncology at Ridley-Tree Cancer Center in Santa Barbara, California. He specializes in minimally invasive robotic surgery and heated chemotherapy for peritoneal mesothelioma.

Get in touch
Dr. J.F. Pingpank Jr., peritoneal mesothelioma doctor

J.F. Pingpank Jr.

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

Dr. J.F. Pingpank Jr. is a peritoneal mesothelioma expert who advocates for regional therapy. The approach applies treatment locally around the cancer to limit damage to the rest of the body. Pingpank specializes in cytoreductive surgery and heated chemotherapy.

Get in touch

Need Help Finding a Specialist?

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Treatment Options

Mesothelioma treatment helps patients live longer lives. But not every patient is eligible for each type of mesothelioma treatment.

The most common treatments for mesothelioma include:

Surgery
Offers greatest chance of survival. Usually used for diagnosis, tumor removal or palliative care to reduce pain. Patients with strong health and limited cancer spread are good candidates.
Chemotherapy
More than 70 percent of patients undergo chemotherapy. It uses powerful drugs to shrink tumors and kill cancer cells.
Radiation Therapy
Used to reduce pain from growing tumors. When combined with surgery and chemotherapy, it reduces risk of local recurrence. It can be used at any cancer stage.
Immunotherapy
This experimental treatment boosts the immune system to fight the cancer. Primarily used in clinical trials.
Multimodal Therapy
A combination of two or more treatments. Clinical studies show this approach improves survival rates.
HIPEC
A multimodal treatment for peritoneal mesothelioma patients. Surgery is first used to remove as many tumors as possible. Heated chemotherapy is then applied to the abdominal cavity to destroy remaining cancer cells.
Palliative Treatments
May include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or HIPEC. The purpose is not curative care. Instead, the goal is to reduce pain and improve quality of life. Good for any mesothelioma patient.
Read more about mesothelioma treatment
Quick Fact:

More than 70 percent of mesothelioma patients undergo chemotherapy

Clinical Trials and Emerging Treatments

Clinical trials offer mesothelioma patients access to experimental therapies. They also provide scientific and medical information for researches to develop new treatments. Patients in clinical trials also receive excellent medical care.

Alternative Treatments

Herbal medicines, mind-body therapies, holistic healing and other complementary therapies may benefit patients.

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Mesothelioma Lawsuits and Financial Assistance

Why Should You File?

Many companies that produced, distributed or used asbestos products knew it was deadly. But they neglected to warn their employees. Filing a lawsuit can help mesothelioma patients cover lost wages, medical expenses and other costs.

Quick Fact:

$180,000 is the median value for mesothelioma claims, according to a 2010 report from the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that conducts research and analysis on asbestos bankruptcy trusts.

Who Can File a Lawsuit?

A person with mesothelioma can file a personal injury lawsuit. Mesothelioma lawyers file these against companies responsible for their client’s asbestos exposure. Families can file wrongful death claims when a loved one dies of mesothelioma.

How Do I File a Lawsuit?

Qualified mesothelioma attorneys can help you decide when to file a lawsuit. They can also guide you through the process. Time is of the essence because statute of limitations may expire. A mesothelioma lawyer will review your case so you receive the highest compensation.

Learn How to Hire a Qualified Mesothelioma Lawyer

Other Types of Financial Assistance

VA Claims
Military veterans can file asbestos-related claims through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Medicare and Medicaid
Government aid for older patients or those with limited income.
Workers’ Compensation
Financial help may be available to people exposed to asbestos on the job.

Compensation for Asbestos Exposure

Need help with treatment expenses? Find out if you qualify for financial assistance.

Get Free Help Now

Mesothelioma Support

Support is available for mesothelioma patients, survivors and loved ones in many forms.

Mesothelioma Support Groups
Offer patients and survivors a safe place to share experiences.
Grief Support
Counseling sessions and grief support groups can bring peace of mind. They can also provide the coping skills needed to grieve for the loss of a loved one.
Medical Support
A complete medical team with a mesothelioma specialist, dietitian, patient advocate and others can improve prognosis.

The Mesothelioma Center’s monthly online support group meets every second Wednesday. Licensed mental health counselor Dana Nolan runs the support group. Patients and survivors can share their experiences with others on a similar cancer journey.

Common Questions and Answers

  • What are the first signs of mesothelioma?

    The first signs of mesothelioma include shortness of breath, cough and chest pain. Other initial symptoms include wheezing, weight loss and fatigue.

  • Can mesothelioma be cured if caught early?

    While there is no cure for any stage or type of mesothelioma, some early-stage patients have gone into remission for years after treatment. Remission means the cancer has stopped growing and spreading. Patients diagnosed early enough to qualify for surgery have the best chance of achieving remission.

  • Why was my stage 4 mesothelioma not detected during my regular checkups?

    Unfortunately, a number of stage 4 mesothelioma cases do not produce symptoms that clearly indicate a diagnosis of mesothelioma. The symptoms of mesothelioma lead most general practitioners to a diagnosis of pneumonia or another pulmonary condition. In most cases, mesothelioma is diagnosed in stage 4 at a hospital or cancer center by an oncologist and not by general practitioner.

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Registered Nurse and Patient Advocate

Karen Selby joined Asbestos.com in 2009. She is a registered nurse with a background in oncology and thoracic surgery and was the regional director of a tissue bank before becoming a Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center. Karen has assisted surgeons with thoracic surgeries such as lung resections, lung transplants, pneumonectomies, pleurectomies and wedge resections. She is also a member of the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators.

Walter Pacheco, Managing Editor at Asbestos.com
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13 Cited Article Sources

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    Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2726889/
  2. Bowker, M. (2003). Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
  3. Cavette, C. (1994). Asbestos. How Products are Made, 4.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Multiple Cause of Death, 1999-2015 Results.
    Retrieved from: https://wonder.cdc.gov/mcd-icd10-archive2006.html
  5. ClinicalTrials.gov. (n.d.). Mesothelioma. First Posted from 01/01/2016 to 10/18/2017. =
    Retrieved from: https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/results?term=&type=&rslt=&age_v=&gndr=&cond=mesothelioma&intr=&titles=&outc=&spons=&lead=&id=&cntry1=&state1=&cntry2=&state2=&cntry3=&state3=&locn=&sfpd_s=01%2F01%2F2016&sfpd_e=10%2F18%2F2017&lupd_s=&lupd_e
  6. Dodson, R. and Hammar, S. (2011). Asbestos: Risk Assessment, Epidemiology, and Health Effects. Boca Raton: Taylor & Francis. Environmental Protection Agency. (2011, August 22). Asbestos: Basic Information.
    Retrieved from: http://www2.epa.gov/asbestos
  7. Environmental Working Group. (2009). The Failed EPA Asbestos Ban: Asbestos manufacturing and sale of asbestos-containing goods in still legal in the U.S.
    Retrieved from: http://www.ewg.org/
  8. Johns Manville. (2008). Building on Tradition [PDF document].
    Retrieved from: http://www.jm.com/
  9. Kalanik, L., McNulty, M., Stansell, C. (2005, January 1). Johns Manville Corporation. [Abstract]. International Directory of Company Histories.
    Retrieved from: http://highbeam.com/doc/1G2-3429100062.html
  10. RAND Corporation - Institute For Civil Justice. (2010). Asbestos Bankruptcy Trusts.
    Retrieved from: https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/technical_reports/2010/RAND_TR872.sum.pdf
  11. Spaggiari, L. et al. (2014, June). Extrapleural Pneumonectomy for Malignant Mesothelioma: An Italian Multicenter Retrospective Study. 00330-0/fulltext#tbl2
    Retrieved from: http://www.annalsthoracicsurgery.org/article/S0003-4975(14)
  12. U.S. Geological Survey. (2005). [Asbestos] statistics, in Kelly, T.D., and Matos, G.R.,comps. Historical statistics for mineral and material commodities in the United States: U.S. Geological Survey Data Series 140 [Data file].
    Retrieved from: http://pubs.usgs.gov/ds/2005/140/
  13. American Cancer Society. (2017, December 20). Survival Statistics for Mesothelioma. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/malignant-mesothelioma/detection-diagnosis-staging/survival-statistics.html
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Last Modified April 16, 2019

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