Malignant mesothelioma is a rare, asbestos-related cancer that forms on the thin protective tissues that cover the lungs and abdomen. A combined approach to treatment is helping people improve their survival and ease symptoms.

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  • About

    • Causes: Asbestos exposure, radiation exposure, SV40 polio vaccine
    • Latency Period: It can take 20-50 years after asbestos exposure for mesothelioma to develop.
    • Number of Cases: 2,000 to 3,000 in the U.S. annually
  • Symptoms

    • Pleural Mesothelioma: Shortness of breath, chest pains, dry cough, pleural effusion
    • Peritoneal Mesothelioma: Abdominal pain, abdominal swelling, weight loss

Did you know that doctors diagnose an estimated 3,000 cases of mesothelioma annually in the U.S.? The majority of those are traced to job-related exposures to asbestos. Most people have the pleural type, which forms on the lining of the lungs, but the cancer can also form around the lining of the abdomen or heart.

Although asbestos use in this country has dropped in recent decades, a steady number of people are still getting mesothelioma. That's because this cancer can take anywhere from 20 to 50 years after asbestos exposure before symptoms appear, and an oncologist can make a definitive diagnosis.

While there's no cure for mesothelioma and the outlook is generally poor, researchers have made significant progress in understanding the cancer and developing new treatment options and alternative therapies.

How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?

Mesothelioma typically develops after people are exposed to asbestos in the workplace – in industrial settings, shipyards, auto repair shops, old houses, schools and public buildings. While it usually takes long-term exposure to put someone at risk, short-term and one-time exposures are also known to cause mesothelioma cancer.

Body Inhaling Asbestos
Asbestos inhalation occurs
Asbestos Fibers lodging in the mesothelial tissue
Fibers lodge in mesothelial tissue
 Asbestos Fibers in the mesothelial tissue
Fibers cause cellular damage, resulting in tumor growth

Fast Fact: 70-80 percent of people with mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos at work.

Asbestos can cause health complications when work duties or other activities disturb asbestos-containing materials and release fibers into the air. When we inhale or swallow these microscopic fibers, our bodies struggle to get rid of them. Over decades, the trapped fibers trigger biological changes that can cause inflammation, scarring and genetic damage that sometimes leads to cancer. The lengthy gap between asbestos exposure and diagnosis is called the latency period.

Asbestos fibers most often become trapped in the lining of the lungs, called the pleura. They also can collect in the lining of the abdominal cavity (peritoneum) or heart (pericardium). Once fibers cause biological damage, the stage is set for the decades-long latency period for the development of malignant mesothelioma.

Learn More about How Asbestos Causes Cancer

Why Is Cancer Stage Important?

Although several factors help determine your mesothelioma prognosis, or survival outlook, it is most affected by the stage of your cancer. Your doctors will perform tests to determine your cancer stage, typically a number I-IV that describes the seriousness of your diagnosis. Your cancer stage helps doctors determine the treatment options likely to work best for you.

Factors That Affect Prognosis Include:

  • Type/stage of mesothelioma
  • Tumor cell type
  • Overall health
  • Gender
  • Size and location of tumor
  • Blood characteristics

What Are the Different Types of Mesothelioma?

Pleural mesothelioma, the most common type of the disease, represents about 75 percent of all diagnoses. Peritoneal is the second most common type, and it accounts for 10 to 20 percent of diagnoses. Approximately 1 percent of cases are of the pericardial variety. Another rare type known as testicular mesothelioma represents less than 1 percent of all mesotheliomas.

Pleural Mesothelioma - Cancer of the Lung Lining


It forms on the lining of the lungs, and current studies are leading to improved treatment and survival rates.

Learn about pleural mesothelioma
Peritoneal Mesothelioma - Cancer of the Abdomen Lining


It affects the lining of the abdominal cavity and responds best to a combination of surgery and heated chemotherapy.

Learn about peritoneal mesothelioma
Pericardial Mesothelioma - Cancer of the Heart Lining


Emerging from the lining of the heart, it's the most challenging to treat because of the sensitive location.

Learn about pericardial mesothelioma

What Are the Common Symptoms of Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma symptoms can be so mild that few people notice or recognize them, and many don't experience any of them until later stages of the cancer. Fatigue and slight pain around the tumor may surface in early mesothelioma stages. Late-stage symptoms are more noticeable and commonly provoke people to visit the doctor.

These late-onset signs can include shortness of breath, chronic pain near the tumor, weight loss, fluid buildup or bowel obstruction. Effective therapies can relieve symptoms, and some treatments, like talc pleurodesis, can even prevent symptom recurrence.

Symptoms you may experience include:

  • Fatigue
  • Pain near tumor
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry cough
  • Weight loss
  • Fluid buildup
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Difficulty swallowing

How Is Mesothelioma Diagnosed?

Doctors use several methods to test for malignant mesothelioma. Some exams provide more information than others, such as imaging scans and biopsies, but a combination of these helps doctors confirm an accurate mesothelioma diagnosis.

Mesothelioma Imaging Scan

Imaging Scans

Most people initially undergo a basic chest X-ray to check for any abnormalities. If an abnormal growth is detected, doctors will recommend a more detailed imaging scan such as a PET scan, CT scan or MRI.

Mesothelioma Biopsy


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 mesothelioma cells.

Blod Test

Blood Tests

Blood tests are also available, but they do not confirm the presence of mesothelioma. Research and development is underway to determine if blood tests can aid in early diagnosis for at-risk former asbestos workers.

Doctor Going over mesothelioma stage with patient


There are at least five staging systems doctors use to stage pleural mesothelioma. The most widely used is the IMIG staging system. There are currently no universal staging systems for the cancer's other types.

Meet the Survivors

Despite the often poor prognosis associated with malignant mesothelioma, there are a number of encouraging stories of success – accounts of people who live to celebrate special days with spouses, kids and grandkids. Each survivor has a unique tale to tell.

Patricia Hargrett

Patricia H.

Peritoneal Survivor

"We needed the right information so that we could be prepared, so we could understand what we would be going through, what we needed to do."

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John Conway

John C.

Pleural Survivor

"We're very fortunate to know the Veterans Department and the whole team at We were in dire straits, and they gave us hope."

Read More
Brian H.

Brian H.

Pleural Survivor

"So much support made me realize I wasn't alone in this fight. This is a path you don't want to try and walk alone. You have to let others into your life."

Read More
Jacob H.

Jacob H.

Peritoneal Survivor

"I can't do everything I once could, but I'm still out there getting around. I was fortunate in the care I received. And I don't mind sharing my good fortune."

Read More
Mavis N.

Mavis N.

Pleural Survivor

"When you are diagnosed, don't listen to the doom and gloom. Fight with all your might. Don't worry if you feel selfish, as you are important."

Read More
Sandy M.

Sandy M.

Pleural Survivor

"I don't dwell on this disease. I try to forget what I have. It just taps me on the shoulder and lets me know when I climb stairs, or walk too fast and get out of breath."

Read More

What Treatment Options Are Available?

The leading treatment options for mesothelioma include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Many specialists prefer to combine two or more of these treatments, an approach known as multimodal therapy. Clinical trials show this approach has improved survival rates.

Palliative treatments that ease symptoms are quite common for patients of all stages, and experimental therapies like immunotherapy show progress for the future. Additionally, many survivors tout less-traditional alternative treatments for helping them to live longer.

Two doctors performing surgery


Curative surgery is available for people with early stage mesothelioma, while palliative surgery is best for easing the symptoms of those diagnosed at a later stage.

IV bag


Chemotherapy is a standard treatment to kill cancer cells, shrink tumors, prevent recurrence and relieve symptoms.

Patient in an imaging scan


Radiation therapy is used alone or in combination with chemotherapy or surgery to kill cancer cells, manage tumors and prevent cancer from spreading along the path of a biopsy incision.

Mesothelioma Specialist Collage

Top Mesothelioma 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.

Get Help Finding a Specialist

Mesothelioma Treatment Centers

Top Treatment Centers

The most-regarded mesothelioma 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.

Get Help Finding a Cancer Center

Phase II Clinical Trial

Research & Clinical Trials

Funding for mesothelioma research falls far short of that for other cancers, but new drugs and treatment options emerge from important clinical trials. These experimental studies are small and controlled opportunities for scientists to develop effective drugs like cisplatin and carboplatin.

Get Help Finding a Clinical Trial

How Do I Pay For Treatment?

Treatment is expensive, and insurance companies may not cover the cost of diagnostic tests or experimental therapies. People without medical insurance will face an even harder battle. If you or a loved one is diagnosed, consider taking steps to protect your finances.

Financial expert and Patient Advocate Manager Joe Lahav knows the ins and outs of all the financial aid options available to you, including mesothelioma trust funds and grants to cover travel, treatment, housing and other expenses. Let him review your information and determine if you qualify for free financial assistance.

How Does Mesothelioma Affect Veterans?

Because asbestos use in the military was so rampant from 1940 to 1980, veterans from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces who served during those years are now at high risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions. Job duties known for high rates of harmful exposures include pipefitting, mechanical work, equipment maintenance and shipyard work.

Need Help Filing a Claim for VA Benefits?

If you or a loved one was injured by asbestos exposure in the military, U.S. Army Capt. Aaron Munz can help you navigate the VA claims process and get the benefits you deserve. Munz, who joined The Mesothelioma Center as Veterans Department Director in 2015, is a decorated veteran who served nine years in combat and earned the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He understands the challenges veterans face when diagnosed with mesothelioma, and can answer any questions about the disease and the complicated filing process for VA claims.

My Loved One Was Just Diagnosed. What's Next?

Every cancer diagnosis comes with a wide range of physical and emotional challenges, and it's not just patients who are affected. Sometimes family members and loved ones need support too. We can get you free resources to help you move forward, whether you're a new caregiver or a concerned spouse or family member.

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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 in this difficult time. We provide free must-read books that answer frequently asked questions about the asbestos-related cancer, too.

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Visit our Facebook page for the latest in survivor stories, treatment news and inspirational images. While you're there, connect with other members of the mesothelioma community who understand exactly what you're going through.

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Raise Awareness

Order a free wristband today to support your loved one. By wearing a mesothelioma wristband you can help bring awareness to this deadly cancer and also bring to light the dangers of asbestos exposure. Order today and have them shipped overnight.

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Join Our Support Group

Learn how to help your loved one cope with mesothelioma by participating in our monthly support group. You can participate online or over the phone to watch a presentation by our licensed mental health counselor, Dana Nolan, and share your experiences with other survivors and caregivers.

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