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Mesothelioma is a malignant tumor that is caused by inhaled asbestos fibers and forms in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. Symptoms can include shortness of breath and chest pain. The life expectancy for most mesothelioma patients is approximately 12 months after diagnosis. Treatment may improve prognosis and can include surgery, chemotherapy or radiation.

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Karen Selby, RN, Registered Nurse and Patient Advocate
Written by Karen Selby, RN – updated August 27, 2019, Reviewed by a Medical Doctor.

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Common Symptoms Include:

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

A balanced mesothelioma diet can help ease your symptoms and speed recovery. Get a free nutrition guide with quick and easy recipes that can help improve your quality of life.

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A biopsy is the only test that can confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis.

Malignant mesothelioma CT-scan
CT scan image shows pleural thickening and pleural effusion, which are symptoms of malignant mesothelioma.

Imaging tests, such as CT scans, PET scans and X-rays, are also used with the biopsy to identify the location of tumors and evaluate their progression and growth, which is known as stage of the cancer.

If tumors are cancerous, doctors will diagnose this as malignant mesothelioma. They may simply call it mesothelioma. Doctors may discover that tumors are noncancerous. In that case, they will diagnose it as benign mesothelioma.

An early mesothelioma cancer diagnosis may increase a patient’s eligibility and access to all treatment options.


Asbestos exposure is the primary cause of mesothelioma.

Diagram of asbestos fibers entering the lungs and peritoneum which develop into mesothelioma cancer
Asbestos fibers enter the body and develop into mesothelioma cancer

How Mesothelioma Develops

  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.

Who Is at Risk of Mesothelioma?

Blue-collar Workers
Firefighters, construction workers, power plant workers, shipyard workers and others in blue-collar occupations
Primarily military personnel who served in the U.S. Navy, but also those who served in the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard
Family Members
Spouses, children and others who had secondhand exposure from living with a person who was regularly exposed to asbestos
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The stages of mesothelioma, which range from 1 to 4, are based on tumor size and location.

  • Diagram of stage 1 mesothelioma, developing on a lung

    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.

  • Diagram of stage 2 pleural mesothelioma

    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.

  • Diagram of stage 3 pleural mesothelioma

    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.

  • Diagram of stage 4 mesothelioma, showing a tumor spreading through the lung

    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.


There are four types of mesothelioma cancer based on where it develops in the body: Pleural, pericardial, peritoneal and testicular mesothelioma.

Additionally, there are three types of cells found in mesothelioma tumors: Epithelioid, sarcomatoid and biphasic. Prognosis, symptoms and treatment options vary based on both the location and cell type.

Cell Types

Doctors can diagnose mesothelioma further by identifying the cell type of the tumors. Each cell type reacts differently to treatment. Some are more common and respond well to treatments, while others are rarer and more resistant to therapies.

  • Most responsive to treatment
  • Accounts for 70% of mesothelioma diagnoses
  • Least responsive to treatment
  • Poorer prognosis and shorter life expectancy
  • About 10% of cases
  • Combination of epithelioid and sarcomatoid cells
  • Response to treatment depends on ratio of cell types


Mesothelioma cancer is treated with conventional therapies such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. But not every patient is eligible for each type of mesothelioma treatment. Some patients also opt for emerging cancer treatments, including clinical trials, and alternative therapies.

Conventional Therapies

  • Offers greatest chance of survival
  • Used for diagnosing, removing tumors or easing pain
  • Eligible patients have strong health and limited cancer spread
  • More than 70% of patients undergo chemotherapy
  • Strong drugs shrink tumors and kill cancer cells
Radiation Therapy
  • Reduces pain from growing tumors
  • Combined with surgery and chemotherapy
  • Used at any cancer stage

Emerging Treatments

Clinical Trials
  • Patients can access experimental therapies
  • Provide researchers scientific information to develop new treatments
  • Experimental treatments use the immune system to fight the cancer
  • Primarily performed in clinical trials
Alternative Treatments
  • Use herbal medicines, mind-body therapies, holistic healing and other complementary therapies
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The prognosis for mesothelioma is not good. The life expectancy for most patients is about 12 months after diagnosis.

Graphic of a statistic that 40% of mesothelioma patients survive at least 1 year

Key Factors

Factors that most affect mesothelioma prognosis are stage and cell type. Age, gender and exposure history 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 higher chance of survival.

Ways to Improve Prognosis

Patients can improve prognosis by eating a nutrient-rich diet, undergoing cancer treatments like multimodal therapy — which is a combination of two or more treatments — and staying healthy.

Legal & Financial Options

Legal and financial options for mesothelioma patients and their families include filing for lawsuits or settlements, qualifying for trust funds and applying for VA claims.

These options can provide financial compensation to pay medical bills, lost wages and other expenses. A mesothelioma lawyer can review your case, so you receive the highest compensation.

Mesothelioma Lawsuits
A mesothelioma patient can file a personal injury lawsuit against companies responsible for their asbestos exposure. The estate, including family members, of the loved one who died from mesothelioma can file a wrongful death lawsuit.
Trust Funds
Bankrupt asbestos companies established trust funds to provide compensation for people who were exposed to asbestos because of the company’s negligence. Asbestos trust funds hold more than $30 billion.
VA Claims
Because the U.S. military relied heavily on asbestos, veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma may be eligible for benefits, including VA claims for disability compensation, from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Do I Qualify for One of These Options?

Our team of Patient Advocates can quickly determine your or a family member’s eligibility for legal action or financial compensation and help connect you with a qualified attorney or certified VA claims agent.

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Registered Nurse and Patient Advocate

Karen Selby joined 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
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  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].
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  13. American Cancer Society. (2017, December 20). Survival Statistics for Mesothelioma. Retrieved from:

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Last Modified August 27, 2019

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