Key Facts About Mesothelioma
  • Mesothelioma is a cancer that affects the tissue lining surrounding internal organs.
  • Exposure to asbestos is the primary cause of mesothelioma.
  • Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy.
  • The average life expectancy for mesothelioma patients is 12 to 21 months.

What Is Mesothelioma?

Malignant mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer. It can develop in the thin lining around the lungs, abdomen, heart and testes. Mesothelioma is primarily caused by asbestos exposure.

Exposure to asbestos most often happened at industrial, manufacturing and construction job sites. Older building materials contained asbestos for its strength and resistance to heat and electricity. Exposure also occurred at home through building materials, appliances and talc-containing personal care products. Asbestos naturally forms in talc deposits, and separating the minerals has proven difficult.

Graphic showing the four types of mesothelioma.
The four types of mesothelioma are categorized by the locations in which tumors develop.

Life expectancy for people with mesothelioma is about 12 months with treatment, which is why the prognosis is generally poor for most patients. About 12% of people with pleural mesothelioma and 65% with peritoneal mesothelioma live for five years or longer

There are four distinct types of mesothelioma:
  • Pleural mesothelioma
  • Peritoneal mesothelioma
  • Pericardial mesothelioma
  • Testicular mesothelioma

The most common type of mesothelioma is pleural. It forms in the pleura, the protective lining around the outside of the lungs. The second-most common mesothelioma type is peritoneal, which forms in the abdominal lining. It has a much higher survival rate, and surgery is typically more successful than with pleural mesothelioma. The pericardial and testicular types affect about 1% of patients, and their treatment options are much more limited.

“Mesothelioma is a very ugly disease,” said Dr. Andrea Wolf, director of the New York Mesothelioma Program at Mount Sinai Health. “The most important thing I try to convey to patients is the importance of optimism … and focus on the things that give us a better chance for them.”

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What Causes Mesothelioma?

Asbestos is the primary cause of mesothelioma. Repeated exposure to asbestos-contaminated products, such as talc and older construction materials, increases the risk of developing mesothelioma.

Asbestos fibers get stuck in tissues that line and protect vital organs. Over a period of decades, the fibers cause irritation and DNA damage. This damage turns normal cells into cancer cells, which develop into mesothelioma tumors. An average of 20 to 60 years passes between the first asbestos exposure and the development of symptoms, which is called the mesothelioma latency period.

Patients inhale or ingest asbestos, which causes chronic inflammation in the mesothelium. This can lead to genetic changes where cell DNA changes into a mesothelioma cancer cell.
Dr. Marcelo DaSilva
Mesothelioma and Thoracic Specialist

Occupational asbestos exposure is the No. 1 cause of mesothelioma. Construction workers, industrial workers, firefighters, military veterans and those in similar occupations may have been exposed to asbestos.

If you or a loved one were exposed to asbestos long ago, monitoring for signs of disease with X-rays and other tests can help catch cancer early. Tell your doctor about your exposure and ask how frequently you should be tested.

Mesothelioma Symptoms

Respiratory symptoms of pleural mesothelioma primarily affect the lungs and chest cavity and include coughing, wheezing and chest pain. Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma develop in and around the abdomen and include abdominal swelling, distension and pain.

Pericardial mesothelioma symptoms impact the heart, such as heart palpitations and murmurs. Symptoms of testicular mesothelioma include testicular swelling and pain.

Common Mesothelioma Symptoms
  • Fatigue
  • Fever and sweating
  • Fluid buildup
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle weakness
  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Unexplained weight loss

Fatigue, weight loss and fever commonly occur in cancers. Mesothelioma misdiagnosis is frequent because its symptoms can resemble other cancers and illnesses.

Talk to your doctor if you have been exposed to asbestos in the past and are experiencing these symptoms. Early diagnosis of any disease often leads to a better prognosis.

Survivor Story
Daniel McCarthy Mesothelioma Survivor

Mesothelioma Survivor Still Soaring the Skies

Survivor Story

Diagnosed in 2017, pleural mesothelioma survivor Daniel McCarthy stays remarkably active at 82. After surviving aggressive surgery performed by specialist Dr. Abraham Lebenthal at the Boston VA Hospital, McCarthy underwent chemotherapy and radiation, which slowed him but didn’t stop his push to stay engaged. Today, he walks daily, reads considerably and writes about his adventures.

Read Daniel’s Story

Diagnosing Mesothelioma

A biopsy is necessary to confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis. If mesothelioma cancer is suspected, doctors will recommend taking a tissue sample, also known as a biopsy. Doctors use this tissue sample to look for the presence of specific malignant mesothelioma cells.

Mesothelioma Cell Types:
  • Biphasic: Combination of epithelioid and sarcomatoid cells. It accounts for 30% to 40% of cases.
  • Epithelioid: Accounts for 70% of diagnoses and is the most responsive to treatment.
  • Sarcomatoid: Found in 10% of diagnoses, has a poorer prognosis and shorter life expectancies.

Doctors use several other tests to diagnose malignant mesothelioma. Blood tests may be used, but they cannot detect mesothelioma alone. Most people initially undergo a chest X-ray.

If an abnormal growth or fluid around the lung is detected, doctors will recommend these imaging scans:

  • CT scan
  • MRI
  • PET scan

After a mesothelioma diagnosis, your doctor will review your pathology report to determine the cancer’s cell type. The three primary types of mesothelioma cells respond differently to treatment, and prognosis varies for each cell type.

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Why Early Diagnosis of Mesothelioma Is Important

Early detection of mesothelioma is important because it leads to more effective treatment options and improved treatment outcomes. If you are diagnosed with early-stage mesothelioma you may be eligible for more treatment options than if you were diagnosed with late-stage mesothelioma. 

Dr. Jeffrey Velotta, a thoracic surgeon at Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center, said an “earlier diagnosis at an earlier stage leads to better survival.”

Patients in the early stages of mesothelioma are better candidates for surgery, which can improve their prognosis and life expectancy.

Staging and Mesothelioma Diagnosis

Determining the stage of cancer is important because it helps doctors make treatment plans and predict patient prognoses. The stages of mesothelioma range from 1 to 4.

  • Stage 1: The cancer is localized. Surgery is most effective at this stage, and the survival rate is higher.
  • Stage 2: Cancer has spread from the original location and moved into adjacent structures. Surgery is still an option.
  • Stage 3: Cancer has spread into the regional lymph nodes. Surgery is an option in select cases.
  • Stage 4: Cancer has spread into distant organs. Immunotherapy, chemotherapy and Tumor Treating Fields ease symptoms and extend life.

These stages are based on tumor size and location. Each type of mesothelioma grows and spreads uniquely depending on the location where tumors originated.

Graphic showing the four stages of mesothelioma.
The stages of mesothelioma advance as tumors grow and spread.

Median life expectancy for pleural mesothelioma ranges from 14.9 months to 22.2 months, depending on the stage. Which treatments your doctor recommends are largely based on the cancer’s stage, cell type and your overall health.

Mesothelioma Treatments

The standard treatment for mesothelioma may include surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation. Doctors develop individualized treatment plans based on cancer location, cell type and stage.

People diagnosed in the early stages of mesothelioma benefit most from multimodal therapy using surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Surgical and palliative treatment options vary by cancer location. The sarcomatoid cell type limits treatment options, while the epithelial cell type responds best to all forms of treatment.

“Supportive care medicine is a new specialized branch of medicine that reduces pain, increases appetite and boosts morale,” said Dr. Jacques Fontaine, director of the Mesothelioma Research and Treatment Center at Moffitt Cancer Center. “Every mesothelioma patient should ask to be seen by this type of medical specialist, in addition to a thoracic surgeon and medical oncologist.”

Some patients may be eligible for mesothelioma clinical trials that test newer therapies. Though not every mesothelioma treatment is suitable for each patient, most patients benefit from palliative care to help manage symptoms of mesothelioma.

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Finding Mesothelioma Treatment

Finding a mesothelioma specialist at a top mesothelioma treatment center is the best way to benefit from the latest therapies and improve a mesothelioma prognosis. Mesothelioma specialists understand more about the disease and its treatment than general oncologists. 

“With this disease, finding a specialist is critical,” said Fontaine. “You need someone who really understands it and knows how to treat it aggressively to get the best possible outcome.”

Not many doctors have knowledge treating mesothelioma. Everyone should get a second opinion. If not for a second opinion, I wouldn’t have survived.
Kasie Coleman
Peritoneal mesothelioma survivor

Top mesothelioma doctors have years of experience developing personalized treatment plans for patients. They have access to the latest treatments and medical technology at renowned cancer centers, and they work on multidisciplinary teams to provide a comprehensive treatment plan. Our Patient Advocates help people get appointments with these experts throughout the U.S.

“Patients are surprised that we can schedule and register them with a specialist for a second opinion,” said Danielle DiPietro, a Patient Advocate with The Mesothelioma Center. 

Although most doctors do not have experience diagnosing or treating mesothelioma, you can find mesothelioma specialists across the U.S.

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Don’t see your state? Find out how our Doctor Match program can help.

What Should I Do Next?

The impact of a rare cancer diagnosis such as mesothelioma can feel like too much to handle. It is completely normal to worry and feel confused about how to move forward. Focus on getting excellent treatment and know there are steps you and your loved ones can take to empower your family with knowledge, resources and hope.

Recommended Next Steps 

  • Find individualized treatment through a mesothelioma specialist. The Mesothelioma Center’s Doctor Match Program can help.
  • Look into emotional support options such as support groups and counseling. The Mesothelioma Center hosts a monthly virtual mesothelioma support group.
  • Caregivers should develop a system of support to avoid burnout. Take time off, find resources for your family and use healthy coping mechanisms to process stress.
  • Financial assistance options provide compensation for medical expenses. Asbestos trust funds also provide compensation for mesothelioma.
  • Veterans with mesothelioma may access specialized health care, disability compensation, caregiver benefits and more through the VA.

The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com provides exclusive services to help mesothelioma patients and their loved ones through every step of their journey. We match patients with specialists, help families access financial assistance and connect them to top mesothelioma lawyers for compensation. 

We provide support groups, assistance applying for VA benefits, help with booking medical appointments and more. All our concierge services are free to anyone affected by mesothelioma. 

Finding other people with mesothelioma to connect with isn’t easy because it is a rare disease. Our Patient Advocates can help. 

“We offer people we speak with the opportunity for patient-to-patient connections,” said DiPietro. “Connecting survivors goes a long way.”

Commonly Asked Questions About Mesothelioma

Is mesothelioma a type of lung cancer?

Mesothelioma is not a form of lung cancer. While both are types of cancer, mesothelioma grows on the pleura, which is the lining that covers the lungs, diaphragm and chest cavity. Lung cancer develops within the lung space.

Is mesothelioma curable?

Mesothelioma is not curable. However, researchers continue investigating new therapy options in clinical trials. Some patients live several years beyond the average life expectancy. Recent treatment advancements, such as immunotherapy, provide patients hope for an eventual cure.

Is mesothelioma always fatal?

While mesothelioma is fatal in most people, many outlive their initial life expectancy. A small number of people have survived for more than a decade after diagnosis. Detecting mesothelioma and receiving treatment from a mesothelioma specialist are the best ways to extend life expectancy.

How can I help a loved one with mesothelioma?

Friends and family members can provide vital support to loved ones diagnosed with mesothelioma. They can help with everyday tasks, such as doing housework, providing transportation to appointments or preparing meals. They might help schedule appointments, pay bills and explore legal options. Loved ones also provide crucial emotional support.