Malignant mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer caused by exposure to asbestos fibers. It affects the lining of the patient's lungs, abdomen or heart and has a poor prognosis. Symptoms include shortness of breath and chest pain. Early detection and treatment may improve outcomes.
Written by Dr. Daniel A. Landau Edited By Walter Pacheco Medically Reviewed By Dr. Jacques Fontaine
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How to Cite Asbestos.com’s Article
Landau, D. A. (2023, March 13). Mesothelioma. Asbestos.com. Retrieved March 23, 2023, from https://www.asbestos.com/mesothelioma/
Landau, Daniel A. "Mesothelioma." Asbestos.com, 13 Mar 2023, https://www.asbestos.com/mesothelioma/.
Landau, Daniel A. "Mesothelioma." Asbestos.com. Last modified March 13, 2023. https://www.asbestos.com/mesothelioma/.
- The primary cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos.
- Primary symptoms of malignant mesothelioma include chest pain, shortness of breath and dry cough.
- About 3,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma annually.
- Common treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy.
- The average life expectancy for mesothelioma patients is 12 to 21 months.
What Is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that develops in the mesothelium, a layer of protective tissue that covers the majority of internal organs.
Treatments are available to extend life expectancy and improve quality of life, but there is no cure for mesothelioma.
Tumor location determines the four types of mesothelioma.
Pleural MesotheliomaForms on the membrane or soft tissue lining, called the pleura, that covers the lungs. Accounts for the majority of all mesothelioma cases.Learn About Pleural Mesothelioma
Peritoneal MesotheliomaDevelops on the peritoneum or membrane that lines the abdominal cavity. Represents less than 20% of diagnoses.Learn About Peritoneal Mesothelioma
Pericardial MesotheliomaGrows on the soft tissue membrane or pericardium that surrounds the heart. Accounts for 1% of cases.Learn About Pericardial Mesothelioma
Testicular MesotheliomaForms on the tunica vaginalis or membrane that covers the testes. The rarest type of mesothelioma, representing less than 1% of cases.Learn About Testicular Mesothelioma
What Causes Mesothelioma?
Asbestos causes mesothelioma. The carcinogen is the primary proven cause of the disease. Asbestos-related diseases may occur after repeated use of asbestos-contaminated products, such as talc and older construction materials.
This cancer begins to develop when a person inhales or swallows asbestos fibers. The fibers become lodged in the soft lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. Over time, tumors form on the damaged tissue, leading to mesothelioma.
Most people exposed to asbestos will not develop mesothelioma. However, some factors place specific people more at risk than others.
Mesothelioma Risk Factors
People who handled or were around asbestos for prolonged periods of time have the highest risk of developing mesothelioma. Those in close contact with exposed workers are also at risk.
- High-Risk Occupations
Workers in construction jobs, firefighters and auto mechanics are among the top high-risk jobs.
- Military Veterans
Service people were exposed to high levels of asbestos because it was used in all military branches.
- Secondhand Exposure
Women, children and other household members exposed to asbestos fibers on a worker’s clothing, hair or skin.
Symptoms of mesothelioma include dry cough, shortness of breath and respiratory complications. Other symptoms, which typically vary by type of mesothelioma, appear when tumors spread, grow and press against the chest wall and the abdominal cavity.
Common Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms:
- Dry cough
- Shortness of breath
- Respiratory complications
- Chest or abdominal pain
- Fever or night sweats
- Pleural effusion (fluid around the lungs)
- Weakness in the muscles
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal swelling (ascites)
- Night sweats
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
Talking to a doctor about your symptoms can lead to an early mesothelioma diagnosis, allowing for more treatment options. Mesothelioma symptoms appear like other, more common cancers and illnesses, and misdiagnosis is common. It’s essential to be aware of your history of asbestos exposure and discuss it with your doctor as soon as possible.
Doctors use several procedures and tests to diagnose mesothelioma, but only a biopsy can confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis. A mesothelioma diagnosis in the early stages of cancer improves a patient’s eligibility for more treatment options.
Common Mesothelioma Testing Procedures
Patients can expect to undergo several imaging scans, blood tests and biopsy procedures after their mesothelioma diagnosis. These tests help doctors confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis and determine cancer location, stage and cell type.
Imaging ScansMost 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.
BiopsiesIf cancer is suspected, doctors will recommend taking a sample of tissue, which is also known as a biopsy. Doctors use this tissue sample to definitively confirm the presence of malignant mesothelioma cells.
Blood TestsBlood 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.
Mesothelioma Cell Types
The three cell types of mesothelioma are epithelioid, sarcomatoid and biphasic. They are named for the characteristics of cells within tumors. Epithelioid is the most common and responds well to many treatments. Sarcomatoid and biphasic are rarer and more resistant to therapies.
EpithelioidThese 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.Learn More About Epithelioid
SarcomatoidCells 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.Learn More About Sarcomatoid
BiphasicThis 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.Learn More About Biphasic
Staging tracks malignant mesothelioma tumor growth and helps doctors make treatment plans and predict patient prognoses. The stages of mesothelioma range from 1 to 4 and are based on tumor size and location.
Early-stage mesothelioma is more confined to one site, while late-stage mesothelioma shows tumors spreading beyond the chest or abdominal cavity. Staging is an integral part of determining treatment.
Stage 1The cancer is localized, and the median life expectancy is 22.2 months.Learn More About Stage 1
Stage 2Tumors have spread from the original location into adjacent structures, and the median life expectancy is 20 months.Learn More About Stage 2
Stage 3Cancer has spread into regional lymph nodes, and the median life expectancy is 17.9 months.Learn More About Stage 3
Stage 4Tumors have spread into distant organs, and the median life expectancy is 14.9 months.Learn More About Stage 4
Mesothelioma Treatment Options
The standard treatment for mesothelioma may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or multimodal therapy. Doctors develop a treatment plan based on cancer type, location and stage.
MultimodalA multimodal or multidisciplinary approach involves a combination of multiple treatments, such as surgery and chemotherapy, in a specific order based on the cancer stage.Learn More About Multimodal
SurgeryExtrapleural pneumonectomy (lung removal) or pleurectomy and decortication (pleura removal) are mesothelioma surgeries that offer patients the best chance of survival.Learn More About Surgery
ChemotherapyMore than 70% of mesothelioma patients undergo chemotherapy. These potent drugs shrink tumors and kill cancer cells but also have numerous side effects.Learn More About Chemotherapy
RadiationDoctors can administer mesothelioma radiation therapy at any cancer stage, often combined with surgery and chemotherapy. Radiation reduces pain and slows tumor growth.Learn More About Radiation
ImmunotherapyMesothelioma immunotherapy drugs control cancer growth using cells from the immune system. Immunotherapy eligibility and success rates vary for each patient.Learn More About Immunotherapy
Tumor Treating Fields (TTFields)The FDA-approved TTFields involves a battery-operated device worn on the skin in combination with chemotherapy to limit cancer growth.Learn More About TTFields
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 can benefit from palliative care to help manage symptoms.
Finding Mesothelioma Treatment Near You
Because mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer, many patients are misdiagnosed or do not have access to specialized care. Finding a local mesothelioma treatment center is the best way to benefit from the latest therapies and improve a mesothelioma prognosis.
Mesothelioma cancer centers across the U.S. employ the top mesothelioma doctors who have years of experience treating patients, improving their prognoses and extending their life expectancies.
Top mesothelioma doctors across the U.S. include:
- Speciality: Thoracic Surgery
- Expertise: Video-Assisted Thoracoscopic Surgery Pleurectomy and Decortication Surgery
- Location: Boston, Massachusetts
- Speciality: Thoracic Surgery
- Expertise: Video-Assisted Surgery Laparoscopic Surgery
- Location: New York, New York
- Speciality: Thoracic Surgery
- Expertise: Pleurectomy and Decortication Clinical Trials
- Location: Los Angeles, California
- Speciality: Surgery
- Expertise: Cytoreductive Surgery HIPEC
- Location: Tampa, Florida
Find a Specialist Near You
Mesothelioma Life Expectancy and Prognosis
The life expectancy for mesothelioma patients is about 12 months with treatment. About 12% of patients with pleural mesothelioma and 65% with peritoneal mesothelioma live for five years or longer. Prognosis refers to the overall outlook of a patient’s cancer based on their response to treatment.
- Cell type
- Cancer location
- Overall health
- Cancer stage at diagnosis
- Treatment response
- Lifestyle and health habits
Alongside cancer treatments, a healthier lifestyle and nutrient-rich diet can improve the quality of life with a malignant mesothelioma diagnosis. For example, quitting smoking and receiving flu and pneumonia vaccinations improves lung function and overall health.
Mesothelioma Support and Resources
Many free resources, such as medical webinars and support groups, help patients and families better understand and cope after a diagnosis. General support options, caregiver resources and financial assistance can lower your family’s emotional, physical and monetary burden.
- Mesothelioma Guides: Our printed patient resources are handy references for healthy lifestyle habits after a mesothelioma diagnosis, which some may prefer over online guides.
- Online Support Groups: Many mesothelioma survivors find it cathartic to share their story or listen to other patients, caregivers, and families in a support group.
- Information for Caregivers: Mesothelioma caregiving is demanding, but caregiver support and benefits are available, including strategies on avoiding burnout.
- On-Demand Webinars: Educational webinars hosted by mesothelioma experts offer invaluable insight and provide an opportunity to have your questions answered.
- Mesothelioma News: Keeping up with the latest mesothelioma news is the best way to stay current with innovative treatments, support resources and clinical trials.
Helping more than 50% of all mesothelioma patients
At The Mesothelioma Center, the nation’s most trusted mesothelioma resource, we provide mesothelioma patients and their loved ones all of these unique services and many more, including financial assistance, help finding a doctor and legal options.
Commonly Asked Questions About Mesothelioma
- What is mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that commonly develops in the thin tissue lining the lungs or abdomen. What makes this cancer unique is that it is caused almost exclusively by inhaling or ingesting asbestos fibers.
- What’s the difference between mesothelioma and malignant mesothelioma?
The terms “mesothelioma” and “malignant mesothelioma” usually refer to the cancerous and aggressive form of the disease. Non-cancerous or benign mesothelioma tumors can also occur throughout the body but do not spread as quickly and do not typically return after surgery.
- Is mesothelioma the same as lung cancer?
Mesothelioma is not a form of lung cancer. While both are types of cancer, mesothelioma grows on the pleura lining the outside of the lungs, diaphragm and chest cavity. Lung cancer develops within the lung space. Both diseases share similar symptoms, such as shortness of breath and chest pain, and can occur after inhaling asbestos fibers.
- What causes mesothelioma other than asbestos?
Asbestos is the only proven cause of mesothelioma. The primary risk factor for mesothelioma is asbestos exposure from serving in the military or working jobs that involve handling products contaminated with asbestos.
- Is malignant mesothelioma curable?
Mesothelioma is incurable, though researchers continue investigating new therapy options in clinical trials. Some patients live several years beyond the average life expectancy, and recent treatment advancements, such as immunotherapy, provide patients hope for an eventual cure.
- Is there financial assistance for mesothelioma patients?
You may be eligible to seek compensation for mesothelioma from asbestos trust funds, lawsuits or VA claims. Financial assistance helps cover the cost of treatment expenses and lost wages. Speaking with a mesothelioma lawyer is the best way to learn about your legal options if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma.