Malignant mesothelioma is a rare, asbestos-related cancer that 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 are improving survival and life expectancy.

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Key Info
Mesothelioma Cancer
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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

What Is Mesothelioma?

Perceptions about malignant mesothelioma are changing.

Scientific research and increased awareness are leading to earlier diagnoses. Improved and developing mesothelioma treatments are allowing patients to live longer than ever.

As more thoracic surgeons and oncologists become familiar with malignant mesothelioma, patients will have more experienced doctors who can extend their life expectancy and increase their chances of surviving this disease.

Dr. David Sugarbaker, top mesothelioma specialist, video on what mesothelioma is.
Mesothelioma expert Dr. David Sugarbaker answers the question 'What is mesothelioma?'

Malignant Mesothelioma

Diagram of mesothelioma & other asbestos-related diseases as they form on the lungs

Malignant mesothelioma is a cancer caused by asbestos exposure. It forms in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, heart or testicles. Around 2,500 new cases of malignant mesothelioma are diagnosed each year in the U.S.

A small portion of mesothelioma tumors are not cancerous. Known as benign mesothelioma, these tumors respond well to surgery and rarely recur.

To understand malignant mesothelioma, it is important to learn about its causes, symptoms, types, treatment and prognosis. Learning more about mesothelioma cancer will help you make wise decisions about treatment and help you choose the best path to extend your life expectancy.


Men are 75% of all diagnosed mesothelioma cases
Source: SEER, 2017

Exposure to asbestos is still the overwhelming cause of mesothelioma. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral once highly regarded for its insulation and fire-retardant properties.

Approximately 75 percent of cases are men who were exposed to asbestos while serving in the military or working certain high-risk blue-collar jobs. Some of these jobs include construction, firefighting, shipbuilding and industrial work.

Secondary exposure also occurs when washing the clothes of someone in a high-risk occupation. Living near abandoned asbestos mines or areas where asbestos occurs naturally in the environment can lead to exposure.



Mesothelioma symptoms do not usually arise until tumors have grown and spread, and they begin to press against the chest wall or abdominal cavity.

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

If you have a history of asbestos exposure and experience these symptoms, you should consult a mesothelioma cancer specialist as soon as possible. Although symptoms appear during the late stage of the cancer, quick diagnosis may improve your prognosis and life expectancy.

Learn about Malignant Mesothelioma Symptoms Mesothelioma Guide

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Who Gets Mesothelioma?

Veterans account for

of all mesothelioma legal cases

Source: The Wall Street Journal, 2003

Men over the age of 60 make up the majority of malignant mesothelioma cases. But, cases among women recently increased by 8 percent.

People who worked with asbestos products are at an increased risk of developing mesothelioma cancer. Those who served in the U.S. armed forces and worked at certain occupations, such as construction jobs, were more likely to use asbestos products.

The risk of developing mesothelioma increases with continued exposure to asbestos. Most people who get the cancer worked with asbestos products for years.

  • 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 were especially at risk because this branch used more asbestos products than any other.


  • Occupational Exposure

    More than 75 occupations have exposed workers to asbestos. Among the most at risk include auto mechanics, textile workers, steel mill workers, construction workers and firefighters.


  • Secondary Exposure

    Before safety regulations were put in place, asbestos workers unknowingly brought asbestos fibers home on their hair, skin and clothing. This resulted in secondary asbestos exposure among residents of the home such as women and children.


Dr. David Sugarbaker, mesothelioma specialist

“I remain optimistic that we can, in the next decade, put together the right combination of patients and treatments to effect a cure, which is our holy grail.”

Dr. David SugarbakerDirector of Lung Institute at Baylor College of Medicine

malignant mesothelioma
Different types of malignant mesothelioma

Types of Mesothelioma

Each type of malignant mesothelioma is classified by the location in the body where it develops. Prognosis, symptoms and treatment options vary by type.

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

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

Mesothelioma Prognosis

40% of mesothelioma patients survive at least 1 year

A patient’s prognosis, or survival outlook, is individualized to the patient based on how the disease is expected to affect their body and life span. Prognosis varies greatly from person to person. But, younger patients, women and people diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma typically have a better prognosis than older men diagnosed with the pleural type.

The two biggest factors that affect prognosis are the stage and cell type of the cancer. Other factors affecting life expectancy include age, gender, overall health and history of the patient’s asbestos exposure.

There are three types of mesothelioma cancer cells: Epithelioid, sarcomatoid and biphasic. Epithelioid is the most common and easier to treat than the other types.

Patients with early stages typically have a better prognosis than those with stage 3 or stage 4 because more treatment options are available the earlier the cancer is detected. Electing treatment at any stage can improve survival rates.

2-Year and 5-Year Survival Rates for Pleural Mesothelioma by Stage


2-Year Survival Rate

5-Year Survival Rate

Stage 1A



Stage 1B



Stage 2



Stage 3A



Stage 3B



Stage 4


Less than 1%


Four Stages of Mesothelioma

The stage of mesothelioma describes how far the cancer has spread (metastasized) locally, regionally and distantly from its point of origin. Doctors label the extent of pleural mesothelioma as stage 1, 2, 3 or 4.

During the early mesothelioma stages, tumors are localized. By the late stages, the cancer has spread to nearby locations or throughout the body.

Stage 1 mesothelioma

Stage 1

The cancer is localized, surgery is most effective at this stage, and the 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.


Dr. Rodney Landreneau, thoracic surgeon

“Mesothelioma is not just a death sentence anymore. There have been wonderful advancements in treating this disease in recent years.”

Dr. Rodney LandreneauThoracic Surgeon

Importance of Finding a Mesothelioma Specialist

X-ray of mesothelioma cancer
X-ray of mesothelioma cancer

Finding a specialist is necessary to get an accurate diagnosis. Malignant mesothelioma experts know the right diagnostic tools to determine the exact stage you are in and will customize a treatment plan to extend your life expectancy.

Because this disease represents only 0.3 percent of all diagnosed cancers, most primary care doctors and many oncologists rarely treat or see mesothelioma cancer. Finding a mesothelioma specialty center with a staff that truly understands the intricacies of the cancer — and the best ways to treat it — is crucial to extending survival.

Mesothelioma specialists have diagnosed and treated this disease throughout their medical careers. They know the latest medical advancements specific to this unique disease and have the tools to improve prognosis.

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

The leading treatment options for mesothelioma cancer include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Many specialists prefer to combine two or more of these treatments, which is an approach known as multimodal therapy. Numerous studies show this approach improves survival rates.

Palliative treatments that ease symptoms are quite common for patients of all stages. Emerging therapies in clinical trials, such as immunotherapy, show promise.

Additionally, many survivors credit less traditional alternative treatments for helping them live longer. Care in pursuit of these alternative approaches is recommended, because evidence to support claims of benefit may be lacking, and some practitioners may only be preying on fear and desperation to take advantage of patients.

The most common treatments for mesothelioma include:

Clinical Trials and Emerging Treatments

Aside from conventional treatments, many mesothelioma cancer patients turn to clinical trials to potentially extend survival.


mesothelioma clinical trials active or recruiting patients worldwide since 2016

Participation in such trials can advance the knowledge of those treating malignant mesothelioma and therefore can also help other patients with this disease now and in the future. These experimental studies are small and controlled opportunities for scientists to test new drugs, therapies and different combinations of treatments.

Clinical trials often become an option for patients whose traditional treatments were unsuccessful or for those not eligible for surgery. Emerging treatments under investigation in clinical trials include immunotherapy, photodynamic therapy and cryotherapy.

For example, clinical trials are currently exploring the immunotherapy drugs Keytruda and Opdivo in mesothelioma patients. Early results are promising that these drugs will play a key role in the future of mesothelioma treatment.


Mesothelioma survivor Walter Merth

“The therapy has given me a new window. It’s like getting my life back.”

— Mesothelioma survivor Walter Merth on participating in Keytruda clinical trial

Mesothelioma Lawsuits and Financial Assistance

Personal injury lawsuits have gotten a bad rap thanks to poor portrayal in TV shows and movies. The media tends to focus on frivolous lawsuits. But mesothelioma lawsuits are not frivolous. Anyone diagnosed with mesothelioma knows they did nothing wrong to deserve it.

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.

Malignant mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are preventable, but the companies that mined, manufactured and sold asbestos products put profits before the health of their own employee and customers. Our legal system ensures these companies are held accountable for their negligence.

A good mesothelioma lawyer can guide you through the process. There is no hassle for the patient to endure. Most mesothelioma lawsuits settle out of court. This means you likely won’t have to testify in front of a jury. Most patients can do their deposition from the comfort of their home.

Connect with a Mesothelioma Lawyer

Get help finding an attorney who knows the process and can get you and your family the compensation you deserve.

Get Help Now

Importance of Having a Mesothelioma Lawyer

Working with an experienced mesothelioma lawyer will help you move smoothly through the legal process of filing a lawsuit or trust fund claim.

Mesothelioma lawsuits include personal injury claims and wrongful death claims. Most lawsuits are settled out of court before a trial takes place.

Asbestos trust funds are established by now defunct companies that filed for bankruptcy protection. To date, these funds contain more than $30 billion to compensate workers and their families.


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.

Other Types of Financial Assistance

Other types of financial assistance are available. They will help you cover immediate costs while you wait for compensation. Examples include travel, housing and treatment grants, VA claims, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security disability.

Veterans exposed to asbestos during military service can file for asbestos-related claims through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Government programs, such as Medicare or Medicaid, can help older patients or those with limited finances. Workers’ compensation may be available to people exposed to asbestos on the job.

Don’t let the notion of high costs of mesothelioma cancer treatments deter you from pursuing the best treatment options possible.

Mesothelioma Support

It takes a village to support someone with mesothelioma. Building a strong system of support will help you navigate this journey. You’re not alone. We’re here to help.

We have a team of Patient Advocates who are available seven days a week to answer your questions and provide free resources. Consider joining our support group to get guidance and understanding from other people facing mesothelioma.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, the Mesothelioma Center Facebook group is one of the best groups I have joined… The support the group provides is amazing.”

— Nicholas Bornman

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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

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Last Modified May 3, 2018
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