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

  • More than 3,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed annually in the U.S.
  • Pleural mesothelioma cases are most common (75%).
  • Peritoneal (20%), pericardial (1%) and testicular (< 1%) mesothelioma are rare.
  • Symptoms include breathlessness, swelling and pain in the chest, abdomen or testes.
  • Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy and emerging options such as immunotherapy.
Mesothelioma developing in the pleura, peritoneum and pericardium
Mesothelioma tumors develop in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart.

More than 50% of people diagnosed with mesothelioma in the United States seek help from the Patient Advocates at The Mesothelioma Center.

Patient advocates for the Mesothelioma Center

Mesothelioma Symptoms

Symptoms of mesothelioma appear when tumors spread, grow and press against surrounding tissue. 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
  • Pain in the chest or abdomen
  • Fever or night sweats
  • Pleural effusion (fluid around the lungs)
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness in the muscles
Get a free nutrition guide with quick and easy recipes that can improve your quality of life.
Cancer and nutrition is such a growing area, and research is underway daily to find out how we can better protect ourselves from this disease.
Tejal Parekh
Registered & Licensed Dietitian

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 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.
A mesothelioma tumor forming after asbestos fibers got embedded in the mesothelial lining of the lung
Inhaled asbestos fibers lead to the development of tumors.

People Most at Risk of Developing Mesothelioma

People most at risk of developing mesothelioma 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
  • Plumbers
  • Boiler workers
  • Electricians
  • Family members
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 identified by the location in the body where tumors develop. Pleural and peritoneal types of mesothelioma are the most common. Pericardial and testicular mesothelioma account for less than 2% of cases combined.

Prognosis, symptoms and treatment options vary by mesothelioma type.

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 treatment. Other cell subtypes are rarer, and some of them are more resistant to therapies.

Types of Mesothelioma Include:

  • 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.
If cancer is suspected, doctors will recommend taking a sample of tissue, 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.

Diagnosed with Mesothelioma?

Stages of Mesothelioma

Staging tracks 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Stage 4

    Tumors have spread into distant organs. Chemotherapy and immunotherapy ease symptoms. Median life expectancy at stage 4 is 14.9 months.

Mesothelioma Prognosis

When doctors discuss a mesothelioma 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 such as quitting smoking can improve prognosis and well-being.

Percentage of mesothelioma patients who survive at least one year

Malignant Mesothelioma Treatment Options

Mesothelioma is treated with conventional therapies such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, according to a 2018 American Society of Clinical Oncology study. Emerging cancer treatments, including immunotherapy and Tumor Treating Fields, are also available for some patients. Though not every patient is eligible for each type of mesothelioma treatment, most patients can benefit from palliative care to help manage symptoms.

Mesothelioma Treatment Options:

  • 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 new cancer therapy is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat 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 2009 Journal of General Internal Medicine study showed cancer care requires “skills of specialty physicians such as medical oncologists, surgeons and radiation oncologists."

Top Specialists

Mesothelioma 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.

Find a Mesothelioma Specialist

Top Treatment Centers

The most well-regarded treatment centers attract people from across the country. Renowned for their cutting-edge technology and groundbreaking research, these centers can connect you with a multidisciplinary team of physicians with years of experience in treating asbestos-related diseases.

More About Treatment Centers
Doctor reviewing information with older patient
Because mesothelioma is a very rare cancer, finding a specialist is crucial to ensuring the best possible treatment plan and prognosis.
Research, get a second opinion from a mesothelioma specialist and don’t be afraid to ask questions. You can’t make an informed decision if you don’t have the information.
Emily Ward
Pleural Mesothelioma Survivor

Finding Support After a Mesothelioma Diagnosis

Many forms of support are available to mesothelioma patients, survivors and their loved ones.
  • 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
    Learn everything you need to know about mesothelioma through our many informational books 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.
Legal & Financial Options

Compensation for Mesothelioma

Legal and financial options for mesothelioma patients and their families can provide financial compensation to pay medical bills, cover lost wages and help with other expenses. A mesothelioma lawyer can review your case to ensure you receive the highest compensation.

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.
Tell us what you think
Did this article help you?
How did this article help you?
What about this article isn’t helpful for you?
Did this article help you?

Thank you for your feedback. Would you like to speak with a Patient Advocate?