What Is Mesothelioma Cancer?

Malignant mesothelioma is a rare, incurable, asbestos-related cancer that usually affects the lining of the lungs. This cancer is known as pleural mesothelioma. 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 yearly in the United States.
  • Pleural mesothelioma accounts for 75% of cases.
  • Average age of mesothelioma patient is 69.
  • Men represent the majority of mesothelioma diagnoses.
  • Average life expectancy for mesothelioma patients is 12 to 21 months.
Mesothelioma developing in the pleura, peritoneum and pericardium
Mesothelioma tumors develop in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart.

Mesothelioma Symptoms

Symptoms of mesothelioma appear when tumors spread, grow and press against the chest wall and the abdominal cavity. Chest pain and shortness of breath are the most common symptoms.

Common Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • 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
Read More About Mesothelioma Symptoms
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.

Diagnosing Mesothelioma

A biopsy is the only mesothelioma test that confirms a diagnosis. Doctors may use additional diagnostic procedures. An early mesothelioma diagnosis may increase a patient’s eligibility for all treatment options.
  • X-ray icon
    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.

  • Scalpel icon

    If cancer is suspected, doctors will recommend taking a sample of tissue, also knowns as a biopsy. Doctors use this tissue sample to definitively confirm the presence of malignant mesothelioma cells.

  • Needle icon
    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.

  • Clipboard icon

    Doctors use at least five staging systems to stage pleural mesothelioma. The IMIG staging system is preferred. No universal staging system exists for the other mesothelioma types.

Mesothelioma Causes

Asbestos exposure is the primary cause of mesothelioma. People exposed to asbestos at home, work or in the military have a higher risk of developing the cancerous disease.

How Mesothelioma Develops

  • Person inhaling asbestos fibers

    A person inhales or swallows microscopic airborne asbestos fibers.

  • Asbestos fibers entering the lungs

    The asbestos fibers become lodged in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart.

  • Asbestos fibers lodged in mesothelium causing inflammation

    Embedded fibers damage mesothelial cells and cause inflammation.

  • Mesothelioma tumor forming in mesothelium

    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 handled asbestos for a prolonged period of time or were exposed to large amounts of asbestos as part of their career.

Secondhand exposure is also common, especially among the spouses and children of people who worked with asbestos.

Blue-Collar Workers

Firefighters, construction workers, power plant workers, shipyard workers and others are among these types of workers.


U.S. Navy veterans are most at risk. Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard veterans also face health risks.

Family Members

Spouses, children and others who lived with a person who was regularly exposed to asbestos fibers are at risk.

Get the Mesothelioma Compensation You Deserve
Experienced mesothelioma attorneys will help you get compensation for treatment costs, lost wages and other expenses.

Stages of Mesothelioma

The stages of mesothelioma range from 1 to 4 and are based on tumor size and location.

Early-stage mesothelioma is usually 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.

  • Mesothelioma cancer localized to small area of lung

    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 About Stage 1
  • Mesothelioma cancer spreading through lung

    Stage 2

    Tumors have spread from the original location and moved into adjacent structures. Surgery is still an option. Median life expectancy at stage 2 is 20 months.
    Learn About Stage 2
  • Mesothelioma cells spreading to lymph nodes

    Stage 3

    Cancer has spread into the regional lymph nodes. Surgery is an option in select circumstances. The patient’s median life expectancy at stage 3 is 17.9 months.
    Learn About Stage 3
  • Mesothelioma cancer spreading throughout pleura to other organs

    Stage 4

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

Mesothelioma Types

The four types of mesothelioma cancer are identified by the location in the body where tumors develop. Pleural and peritoneal types of mesothelioma are the most common. Pericardial mesothelioma accounts for 1% of cases.

Prognosis, symptoms and treatment options vary by mesothelioma type.

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


    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.
    Read More
  • Sarcomatoid mesothelioma cells


    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.
    Read More
  • Biphasic mesothelioma cells


    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.
    Read More

Mesothelioma Treatment Options

According to a 2018 American Society of Clinical Oncology study, 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

  • Scalpel icon


    This therapy is used for diagnosing, removing tumors or easing pain. It offers the greatest chance of survival for patients with strong health and limited cancer spread.
    Read More
  • IV icon


    More than 70% of patients undergo chemotherapy. The therapy’s strong drugs shrink tumors and kill cancer cells, but it also presents severe treatment side effects.
    Read More
  • Radiation icon

    Radiation Therapy

    The therapy can be used at any cancer stage. Doctors perform it to reduce pain and slow tumor growth. It is often combined with surgery and chemotherapy.
    Read More
  • Clinical folder icon

    Clinical Trials

    Researchers and doctors offer these experimental therapies across the nation to eligible patients. Clinical trials lead to new or improved treatments.
    Read More

Finding Mesothelioma 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.

In fact, 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 Doctors

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.

Review Top Doctors

Top Treatment Centers

The most-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.

Review Top Treatment Centers

Importance of Finding a Mesothelioma Doctor

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

Mesothelioma Prognosis

The prognosis for mesothelioma is not good. 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.

Pie chart representing mesothelioma survival rate

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, staying healthy, undergoing cancer treatments and making healthier lifestyle choices such as quitting smoking.

Legal and Financial Options for Mesothelioma

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

Mesothelioma diagnosis advice video thumbnail

Watch: Experienced mesothelioma lawyer Peter Tambini shares his advice for newly diagnosed mesothelioma patients and their families.

Finding Support After a Mesothelioma Diagnosis

Many forms of support are available for mesothelioma patients, survivors, loved ones and families.

Support Groups for Mesothelioma Survivors

Mesothelioma survivors, caregivers and family members often need a place where they can share their ongoing struggles and amazing accomplishments. We offer a support group, hosted by a licensed mental health counselor, that offers a safe place for all mesothelioma survivors.

Raising Awareness

You and your loved ones can advocate for others who are going through the same cancer journey. Getting involved in the move to ban asbestos and raise mesothelioma awareness can have long-lasting and positive effects.

Read More About Support

Arm Yourself with Information

Request a comprehensive mesothelioma guide to gain a deeper understanding of the cancer and how you can help your loved one during this difficult time. We can provide you with a free must-read book that answers frequently asked questions about mesothelioma.

Free Mesothelioma Guide
Our latest guide for patients and loved ones is shipped overnight and includes treatment information, legal resources, mesothelioma books and support wristbands.
Contents of Asbestos.com's mesothelioma packet

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 and the formation of tumors within the lungs. Characteristics of mesothelioma and lung cancer include rapid, uncontrolled cellular growth leading to 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 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.
Could testing positive for COVID-19 affect my mesothelioma diagnosis?
Testing positive for COVID-19 may delay an accurate diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma. Similar to mesothelioma, COVID-19 symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain, fever and general weakness. Respiratory injury as a result of the virus may mask evidence of mesothelioma, leading to a delayed or inaccurate diagnosis of asbestos-related disease.
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