Malignant mesothelioma is a rare, asbestos-related cancer. It forms on the protective tissues covering the lungs, abdomen and heart. Symptoms include coughing, chest pain and shortness of breath. Treatments combining surgery, radiation and chemotherapy improve survival and life expectancy.

Get a Free Mesothelioma Guide

Written By

Edited By

Medical Review By

This page features: 11 cited research articles

Key Info
Mesothelioma Cancer
View Key Info
Key Info
Mesothelioma Cancer
View Key Info
Key Stats

Mesothelioma Cancer

Exposure to asbestos
Shortness of breath, swollen abdomen, chest wall pain, cough, feeling tired, weight loss
Treatment Options
Surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, multimodal treatment, clinical trials
Very rare, less than 3,000 new cases each year
Life Expectations
Depends on type, stage and patient profile
Legal Options
More than $30 billion in asbestos trust funds, lawsuits

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.

The disease forms on the mesothelium — a protective lining that covers the lungs, abdomen, heart and testes.

Tumors can be benign (noncancerous). But when tumors are cancerous, doctors call the disease malignant mesothelioma. It is often shortened to mesothelioma.

The American Cancer Society records about 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma each year in the U.S.

Leading Expert Dr. David Sugarbaker Explains Mesothelioma

Dr. David Sugarbaker, top mesothelioma specialist, video on what mesothelioma is.
Mesothelioma specialist Dr. David Sugarbaker explains how mesothelioma develops.


Asbestos remains the primary cause of mesothelioma.

The cancer develops when a person ingests asbestos, and it causes changes to a person’s DNA. Our genes are made of DNA. Some of the genes in our body control how cells grow, multiply and die. Changes in our genes may cause cells to divide out of control and may lead to cancer.

Development of Mesothelioma

  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.

Read More About Mesothelioma Causes


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

These mesothelioma symptoms usually do not show until tumors have grown and spread. Mesothelioma latency is 20-50 years. That’s how long it takes from initial exposure to accurate diagnosis. For that reason, many people with mesothelioma are in their 60s or 70s.

You should talk to a mesothelioma specialist soon if you have a history of asbestos exposure and experience these symptoms. An early diagnosis may improve your prognosis and life expectancy.

Read More About Mesothelioma Symptoms Mesothelioma Guide

Free Mesothelioma Information Guide, Tailored to You

Select the diagnosis you or your loved one is facing and receive a free guide with the right information for you:

Who Is Most at Risk of Mesothelioma?

  • Veterans

    Asbestos use in the military was widespread from 1940 to 1980. Veterans from all branches of the U.S. armed forces were at risk of exposure. Navy veterans are most at risk. This branch used the largest quantity of asbestos products.


  • Occupational Exposure

    More than 75 occupations have exposed workers to asbestos. Auto mechanics, textile workers, steel mill workers, construction workers and firefighters are among the most at risk.


  • Secondary Exposure

    Asbestos workers unknowingly carried asbestos fibers on their body and clothing. This resulted in secondary asbestos exposure among residents such as women and children.


Types of Mesothelioma

Oncologists name each type of mesothelioma by the location in the body where it develops.

The pleural and peritoneal types of mesothelioma are the most common. Pericardial accounts for 1 percent of cases. Another rare type is testicular mesothelioma. It represents less than 1 percent of all mesotheliomas.

Prognosis, symptoms and treatment options vary by type.

Pleural Mesothelioma

  • Most common type
  • Forms on soft tissue covering the lungs
  • Best treated with a multimodal approach

Peritoneal Mesothelioma

  • Less than 20 percent of all cases
  • Develops on lining surrounding the abdomen
  • Responds best to a combination of surgery and heated chemotherapy

Pericardial Mesothelioma

  • Second-rarest type
  • Forms on soft tissue around the heart
  • Best treated with a multimodal approach

Testicular Mesothelioma

  • Rarest type
  • Develops on the lining of the testicles
  • Responds best to surgery


40% of mesothelioma patients survive at least 1 year

Younger patients and women have a better mesothelioma prognosis than older men. People diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma also have a higher chance of survival.

Patients eligible to undergo multimodal therapy, which is a combination of two or more standard-of-care treatments, have a better life expectancy and improved prognosis.

A patient’s mesothelioma cell type also plays a significant role in prognosis and life expectancy. The three types of cells include:

Epithelioid: These cells are the most responsive to treatment, which improves prognosis and life expectancy. They comprise 50 percent of mesothelioma diagnoses.

Sarcomatoid: These cells are the least responsive to treatment. Patients with this cell type have a poorer prognosis and shorter life expectancy. These cells comprise 10 percent of diagnoses.

Biphasic: A combination of epithelioid and sarcomatoid cells. This type is less responsive to treatment. But prognosis and life expectancy depends on the ratio of both types of cells. This type accounts for 30-40 percent of diagnoses.

How Long Do Mesothelioma Patients Live?

The life expectancy for most patients is about 12 months after diagnosis.

What Factors Affect Prognosis?

Stage and cell type of the cancer are the factors that most affect prognosis. Age, gender and patient’s asbestos exposure history also affect survival outlook.

How Can Patients Improve Their Prognosis?

Eating a nutrient-rich diet, undergoing cancer treatments, including multimodal therapy, and staying healthy can improve prognosis.

Learn how to improve your prognosis

The Four Stages of Mesothelioma

Stage 1 mesothelioma

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.


Stage 2 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.


Stage 3 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.


Stage 4 mesothelioma

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.


Importance of Finding a Mesothelioma Specialist

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer. It represents only 0.3 percent of all cancer diagnoses. Most doctors and oncologists have never encountered it.

A 2009 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine states that cancer care “requires the technical knowledge and skills of specialty physicians such as medical oncologists, surgeons and radiation oncologists.”

Specialty cancer doctors establish:

  • Goals for treatment and prognosis
  • Possible use of chemotherapy
  • First type of treatment
  • Possible participation in clinical trials

These are factors that impact a mesothelioma patient’s survival. That’s why finding a mesothelioma specialist is so important.

Finding a mesothelioma specialty center with experienced mesothelioma doctors is crucial to survival.

Dr. Jacques Fontaine, a world-renowned mesothelioma specialist, discusses mesothelioma exclusively with

Need Help Finding a Specialist?

Find a Doctor Near You

Top Pleural Specialists

Dr. David Sugarbaker, top pleural mesothelioma specialist

Lung Institute at Baylor College of Medicine

Dr. Sugarbaker
Dr. Robert Cameron, top pleural mesothelioma specialist

UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center

Dr. Cameron
Dr. Jacques Fontaine, top pleural mesothelioma specialist

H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center

Dr. Fontaine

Top Peritoneal Specialists

Dr. Paul Sugarbaker, top peritoneal mesothelioma specialist

Washington (D.C.) Cancer Institute at Washington Hospital Center

Dr. Sugarbaker
Dr. W. Charles Conway, top peritoneal mesothelioma specialist

Ridley-Tree Cancer Center

Dr. Conway
Dr. J.F. Pingpank, top peritoneal mesothelioma specialist

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

Dr. Pingpank

Treatment Options

Quick Fact

More than 70 percent of mesothelioma patients undergo chemotherapy

Mesothelioma treatment helps patients live longer lives. But not every patient is eligible for each type of mesothelioma treatment.

The most common treatments for mesothelioma include:

Surgery: Offers greatest chance of survival. Usually used for diagnosis, tumor removal or palliative care to reduce pain. Patients with strong health and limited cancer spread are good candidates.

Chemotherapy: More than 70 percent of patients undergo chemotherapy. It uses powerful drugs to shrink tumors and kill cancer cells.

Radiation Therapy: Used to reduce pain from growing tumors. When combined with surgery and chemotherapy, it reduces risk of local recurrence. It can be used at any cancer stage.

Immunotherapy: This experimental treatment boosts the immune system to fight the cancer. Primarily used in clinical trials.

Multimodal Therapy: A combination of two or more treatments. Clinical studies show this approach improves survival rates.

HIPEC: A multimodal treatment for peritoneal mesothelioma patients. Surgery is first used to remove as many tumors as possible. Heated chemotherapy is then applied to the abdominal cavity to destroy remaining cancer cells.

Palliative Treatments: May include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or HIPEC. The purpose is not curative care. Instead, the goal is to reduce pain and improve quality of life. Good for any mesothelioma patient.

Read more about treatment
Words from People We’ve Helped

“Thank you for the doctor referral info. We met with the doctor and came away with what seemed like a weight lifted.”

— Jeanette B.

Read More Testimonials

Clinical Trials and Emerging Treatments

Clinical trials offer mesothelioma patients access to experimental therapies. They also provide scientific and medical information for researches to develop new treatments. Patients in clinical trials also receive excellent medical care.

Learn More About Clinical Trials

Alternative Treatments

Herbal medicines, mind-body therapies, holistic healing and other complementary therapies may benefit patients.

Mesothelioma Lawsuits and Financial Assistance


The median value for mesothelioma claims, according to a 2010 report from the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that conducts research and analysis on asbestos bankruptcy trusts.

Why Should You File?

Many companies that produced, distributed or used asbestos products knew it was deadly. But they neglected to warn their employees. Filing a lawsuit can help mesothelioma patients cover lost wages, medical expenses and other costs.

Who Can File a Lawsuit?

A person with mesothelioma can file a personal injury lawsuit. Mesothelioma lawyers file these against companies responsible for their client’s asbestos exposure. Families can file wrongful death claims when a loved one dies of mesothelioma.

How Do I File a Lawsuit?

Qualified mesothelioma attorneys can help you decide when to file a lawsuit. They can also guide you through the process. Time is of the essence because statute of limitations may expire. A mesothelioma lawyer will review your case so you receive the highest compensation.

Other Types of Financial Assistance

  • VA Claims: Military veterans can file asbestos-related claims through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
  • Medicare and Medicaid: Government aid for older patients or those with limited income.
  • Workers’ Compensation: Financial help may be available to people exposed to asbestos on the job.

Mesothelioma Support

Support is available for mesothelioma patients, survivors and loved ones in many forms.

  • Mesothelioma Support Groups: Offer patients and survivors a safe place to share experiences.
  • Grief Support: Counseling sessions and grief support groups can bring peace of mind. They can also provide the coping skills needed to grieve for the loss of a loved one.
  • Medical Support: A complete medical team with a mesothelioma specialist, dietitian, patient advocate and others can improve prognosis.

The Mesothelioma Center’s monthly online support group meets every second Wednesday. Licensed mental health counselor Dana Nolan runs the support group. Patients and survivors can share their experiences with others on a similar cancer journey.

Are You Feeling Overwhelmed by Mesothelioma?

We Can Help Mesothelioma Packet

Get Answers in Our Free Mesothelioma Guide

Order Yours Now

Our Patient Advocates Help Get the Resources You Need

Connect With Us

Get Answers to Your Mesothelioma Questions

Get Your Free Mesothelioma Guide

Connect With a Trusted Patient Advocate

Did this article help you?

Did this article help you?

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

Karen Selby, RN and Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center

Karen Selby joined in 2009. She is a registered nurse with a background in oncology and thoracic surgery and was the 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. Read More

Reviewed by placeholder

Medical Review By

Last Modified August 2, 2018
  1. Klabunde, C. et al. (2009, September). The Role of Primary Care Physicians in Cancer Care.
    Retrieved from:
  2. Bowker, M. (2003). Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
  3. Cavette, C. (1994). Asbestos. How Products are Made, 4.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Multiple Cause of Death, 1999-2015 Results.
    Retrieved from:
  5. (n.d.). Mesothelioma. First Posted from 01/01/2016 to 10/18/2017. =
    Retrieved from:
  6. Dodson, R. and Hammar, S. (2011). Asbestos: Risk Assessment, Epidemiology, and Health Effects. Boca Raton: Taylor & Francis. Environmental Protection Agency. (2011, August 22). Asbestos: Basic Information.
    Retrieved from:
  7. Environmental Working Group. (2009). The Failed EPA Asbestos Ban: Asbestos manufacturing and sale of asbestos-containing goods in still legal in the U.S.
    Retrieved from:
  8. Johns Manville. (2008). Building on Tradition [PDF document].
    Retrieved from:
  9. Kalanik, L., McNulty, M., Stansell, C. (2005, January 1). Johns Manville Corporation. [Abstract]. International Directory of Company Histories.
    Retrieved from:
  10. RAND Corporation - Institute For Civil Justice. (2010). Asbestos Bankruptcy Trusts.
    Retrieved from:
  11. Spaggiari, L. et al. (2014, June). Extrapleural Pneumonectomy for Malignant Mesothelioma: An Italian Multicenter Retrospective Study. 00330-0/fulltext#tbl2
    Retrieved from:
  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].
    Retrieved from:
  13. American Cancer Society. (2017, December 20). Survival Statistics for Mesothelioma. Retrieved from:
Get Help Contacting Mesothelioma
Topics on This Page
Back to Top
Chat live with a patient advocate now loading spinner