Peritoneal Mesothelioma

Peritoneal mesothelioma is the second-most-common type of malignant mesothelioma cancer. It develops along the peritoneum, also known as the lining of the abdomen. Unlike the pleural type, patients with this condition survive several years after diagnosis.

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Dr. W. Charles Conway talks with about peritoneal mesothelioma.

Peritoneal mesothelioma accounts for less than 20 percent of all cases of the asbestos-related cancer. Unlike pleural mesothelioma, which forms on the lining of the lungs and is the most common type of the disease, the peritoneal type develops on the lining of the abdomen.

The beginning symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma, which may show 20 to 50 years after first exposure to asbestos, include abdominal distension, abdominal pain, swelling or tenderness around the abdomen and constipation or diarrhea.

Many of the treatment options for peritoneal mesothelioma are similar to those of other asbestos-related cancers. However, the most promising treatment is a combination of surgery and a heated chemotherapy solution. Patients have credited that treatment to prolonged survival.

The life expectancy of someone diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma is usually more than three years, depending on the stage of the cancer, types of treatments the patient undergoes and the quality of the specialist treating the patient.

While clinical trials for peritoneal mesothelioma are not as abundant as those for pleural mesothelioma, researchers are studying whether immunotherapy combined with chemotherapy could play a bigger role in controlling the cancer by boosting the body's immune system.

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Mesothelioma in the Peritoneum

The peritoneum is a protective membrane that surrounds the abdomen. It has two layers, and peritoneal mesothelioma can develop on both. The parietal layer covers the abdominal cavity, while the visceral layer surrounds the stomach, liver and other organs of the abdomen. Together, the layers support the abdominal cavity and its organs.

What Causes Peritoneal Mesothelioma?

Asbestos exposure is the primary cause of peritoneal mesothelioma, also known as abdominal mesothelioma. Researchers believe asbestos fibers can reach the peritoneum via two pathways:

Swallowed asbestos fibers travel from the digestive system to the peritoneum.
Inhaled asbestos fibers reach the peritoneum through the lymphatic system, which produces and stores cells that fight disease.

Research on other causes of abdominal mesothelioma is scarce. Evidence shows other fibrous minerals, such as erionite, and radiation to the abdomen trigger some cases of this disease.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms

Early symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma can include abdominal pain or swelling, and diarrhea or constipation. Unfortunately, some patients don't experience any symptoms until tumors spread. This scenario makes treating the disease hard and surviving it even harder.

Common peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain or swelling
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • A feeling of fullness
  • Night sweats or fever
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Anemia

Fast Fact: It takes 20-50 years after your first exposure to asbestos for peritoneal mesothelioma to develop.

Once asbestos fibers reach the peritoneum and irritate the cells, the peritoneal lining starts to thicken. The buildup of excess abdominal fluid, known as ascites, may occur next. Once tumors form, they begin to place pressure on the organs.

Learn more about how asbestos causes cancer
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Radiologic biopsies are minor procedures that pull fluid and tissue samples for inspection under a microscope and for other tests. This is an essential step in the diagnostic process because only a biopsy confirms a peritoneal mesothelioma diagnosis.

Sometimes doctors need to perform a laparoscopic surgical biopsy, which is more invasive. In both cases, pathologists look to see if lab results show cancerous cells in your peritoneal fluid or tissue.

This delay, combined with the speedy progression of tumors, usually results in a late-stage diagnosis for most patients. Additionally, most patients don’t develop symptoms until the cancer has progressed.

Dr. Fontaine explains the process of diagnosing mesothelioma.

Fast Fact: Testing biopsy samples for antibodies is important for confirming a mesothelioma diagnosis.

Two antibodies used in the diagnosis are BerEP4 and vimentin. BerEP4 is used to diagnose epithelial mesotheliomas. The value of both is under question because they occur in other tumors aside from mesothelioma. Because vimentin develops in other cancers it cannot be used exclusively to diagnose mesothelioma.

Other antibodies used to confirm this disease include cytokeratin 5/6, calretinin, Wilms tumor 1 and epithelial membrane antigen.

Learn more about biopsies

“I really don’t know how I survived for this length of time...I just did. I think a lot of it was mental.” — Beth Mixon, 16-year peritoneal survivor

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Cell Types

Mesothelioma tumors are composed of cells classified by their structure and composition. The three major cell types of peritoneal mesothelioma include epithelial, sarcomatoid and biphasic.

Epithelial cells are the most common and respond best to treatment. Sarcomatoid cells are the least common and respond poorly to treatment. Biphasic tumors are made of epithelial and sarcomatoid cells. The response of biphasic mesothelioma to treatment depends on the ratio of epithelial to sarcomatoid cells.

Because rare subtypes of these cells exist, it presents challenges for pathologists in diagnosing cancer in the abdomen.

Additional histological variances of peritoneal mesothelioma include adenoid cystic, tubulopapillary, microcystic, signet ring, diffuse, not otherwise specified (NOS), pleomorphic and well-differentiated papillary.

A patient’s cell type can significantly impact their prognosis. Mesothelioma patients with epithelial tumors live an average of 200 days longer than patients with sarcomatoid tumors.

Examples of rare cell subtypes include:

Lymphohistiocytoid mesothelioma

Lymphohistiocytoid mesothelioma

An often misdiagnosed type of sarcomatoid mesothelioma. When it develops alongside epithelial cells, a biphasic peritoneal mesothelioma diagnosis is made.

Desmoplastic mesothelioma

Desmoplastic mesothelioma

A type of sarcomatoid cell that occurs in peritoneal and pleural mesothelioma. The cells are composed of more than 50 percent fibrous tissue that produces collagen.

Deciduoid mesothelioma

Deciduoid mesothelioma

A rare variant of epithelial mesothelioma. It has been diagnosed in roughly 45 mesothelioma cases. Around half of deciduoid cases develop in the abdomen.

Missy Edmunds, Medical Outreach Director
Missy Edmunds Medical Outreach Director

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Omental Mesothelioma

Omental mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that grows in the omentum, a sheet of fatty tissue in the abdomen that hangs in front of the intestines like an apron. The omentum protects our organs, stores nutrients and prevents the spread of infection. The peritoneum covers the omentum, and both contain mesothelial cells that can turn cancerous and form tumors.

Peritoneal mesothelioma usually causes cancer cells to spread from the peritoneum to the omentum. It’s also possible for cancer to develop in the omentum and spread to the peritoneum, but fewer than five cases exist in medical literature.

How Is Peritoneal Mesothelioma Staged?

Imaging scans help doctors estimate the cancer’s stage. These tumors initially form on the lining of the abdomen. As the tumors grow and spread, they migrate outside the lining to lymph nodes and distant organs.

For decades, peritoneal mesothelioma experts developed their own staging system because an official one didn’t exist. Since then, researchers have proposed three stages. A fourth stage is not yet clearly defined.

It is generally accepted that patients with extensive tumor spreading are classified as stage IV.

3 Stages of Peritoneal Mesothelioma

Sonogram scan of abdomen
  • I

    Stage I

    Cancerous tissue is minimal and tumors are contained within the abdominal lining, and lymph nodes are free of cancer.

  • II

    Stage II

    Cancerous tissue is moderate and tumors have not spread outside the lining or to lymph nodes.

  • III

    Stage III

    Cancerous tissue is more extensive and tumors may have spread outside the peritoneal lining, to lymph nodes or both. mesothelioma packet

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“I believe God gave me a second chance, and he did it for a reason. And that’s to do what I do now: Encouraging others and helping as much as I can." — Joyce Montgomery, six-year peritoneal survivor

Treatment Options for Peritoneal Mesothelioma

Although an increasing number of specialists have emerged as treatment leaders for abdominal cancer in recent years, the total number of specialists remains small.

If there are no peritoneal malignant mesothelioma specialists nearby, you may consider one in a neighboring state.

Treatment for this type of mesothelioma includes surgery, chemotherapy and experimental therapies such as immunotherapy. Doctors believe combining traditional treatments often works better than any single treatment. A combination of one or more treatments is called multimodal therapy. Research shows that a multimodal treatment approach usually offers the best improvement in terms of survival.

The most promising peritoneal mesothelioma treatment is heated intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC), a treatment that combines surgery and heated chemotherapy.

Kasie Coleman, peritoneal mesothelioma survivor

"There is no easy way to prepare for a HIPEC procedure. It’s a matter of survival: Do or die."— Kasie Coleman, six-year survivor

While doctors only perform HIPEC on a case-by-case basis, it has extended survival and improved quality of life. In studies on small groups of patients treated with HIPEC, around half lived five years or longer.

To qualify for HIPEC, a patient’s cancer must be limited enough for doctors to completely remove with surgery and not have spread beyond the abdomen.

In addition, qualifying patients must spend more than half of their waking hours up and about and be capable of self-care, which includes basic health maintenance, personal hygiene and the ability to follow doctor recommendations.

Dr. Conway discusses the best treatment for peritoneal mesothelioma and the potential side effects.


Surgery is the most promising traditional treatment option for peritoneal mesothelioma in the abdomen, but it is only effective for early-stage cancer. Because doctors most commonly diagnose asbestos-related diseases after the cancer has spread, most surgeries only attempt to remove sections of the tumor.

Surgery can be curative or palliative. Curative surgery aims to remove as much of the tumor as possible in hopes of curing the cancer. Otherwise, doctors may perform palliative surgery, which aims to remove parts of the tumor to relieve symptoms, extend survival and improve quality of life. Palliative therapies do not stop the cancer.

Tumor spread is usually too vast once they reach beyond the abdomen for surgery to completely remove the cancer. Surgery with a curative intent is not recommended after the cancer has spread. However, a surgery to remove the majority of tumors may be performed to alleviate pain and improve symptoms such as abdominal distention and pain.

Typical surgeries include peritonectomy and cytoreductive surgery, bowel resection and removal of some organs.

Another minor surgical procedure, known as paracentesis, is commonly used on peritoneal mesothelioma patients. A small incision in the abdomen is made to withdraw excess peritoneal fluid, called ascites. This procedure reduces abdominal swelling and pain.

Learn more about mesothelioma surgeries


Doctors can provide chemotherapy drugs that shrink peritoneal mesothelioma tumors and slow the growth and spread of cancer. It can be given before, during or after surgery. In some cases, doctors offer chemotherapy as the only treatment option. Chemotherapy drugs considered effective in treatment include pemetrexed, cisplatin, carboplatin and gemcitabine.

Doctors are now seeing extraordinary results with HIPEC. Once an experimental treatment, HIPEC starts with surgery to remove all visible tumors from the patient’s peritoneum. Next, doctors introduce a heated salt-water solution that contains chemotherapy drugs.

A machine pumps the medicine throughout the patient’s abdomen, helping destroy any cancer cells left behind after surgery. Nearly half of peritoneal mesothelioma cancer patients who receive HIPEC can live at least five years after diagnosis.

Learn more about chemotherapy for mesothelioma

Radiation Therapy

Although some studies show radiation therapy can improve peritoneal mesothelioma survival slightly when combined with surgery and chemotherapy, doctors tend not to recommend radiation for these patients.

Even though targeted radiation can shrink tumors and slow cancer growth, the procedure is risky because of the location of these tumors. The peritoneum wraps around the stomach, liver and intestines. Aiming radiation at nearby tumors could harm these organs and cause damage.

Learn more about radiation therapy

Alternative Treatments

Alternative treatments and emerging therapies are available, but these treatments have less predictable outcomes. Immunotherapy boosts the body’s immune system to help fight cancer. However, research on this emerging therapy mainly focuses on the treatment of pleural mesothelioma, which develops in the lining of the lungs.

Many patients find hope in clinical trials, which are medical studies that test new and experimental treatments. Research from clinical trials helps improve treatment outcomes and may bring us the standard treatments of tomorrow.

Learn more about alternative treatments

Finding Peritoneal Mesothelioma Clinical Trials

Because the number of new peritoneal mesothelioma cases is low — about 500 patients are diagnosed each year in the U.S. — the number of people in clinical trials for this cancer is even smaller.

You can talk to your doctor or a patient advocate at The Mesothelioma Center about whether a mesothelioma clinical trial is right for you.

A recent example of a peritoneal mesothelioma clinical trial is the drug tremelimumab. The study recruited patients to test tremelimumab’s effectiveness against mesothelioma. It’s an immunotherapy drug that signals the immune system to attack malignant mesothelioma cells. The study paired tremelimumab with chemotherapy to increase effectiveness.

Karen Selby, RN
Karen Selby, RNPatient Advocate

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Top Peritoneal Mesothelioma Specialists

Peritoneal mesothelioma is such a rare cancer that few oncologists have experience treating it. Thankfully, a handful of surgeons and oncologists across the country have chosen to specialize in this type of mesothelioma.

They work at comprehensive cancer centers equipped with cutting-edge technology, and they can get you access to clinical trials. Some of the most renowned peritoneal mesothelioma doctors include:

Dr. Paul H. Sugarbaker

Dr. Paul H. Sugarbaker

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Surgeon and HIPEC Pioneer

Washington Cancer Institute in Washington, DC

Contact Dr. Sugarbaker
Dr. J.F. Pingpank Jr.

Dr. J.F. Pingpank Jr.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Surgeon

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh, PA

Contact Dr. Pingpank
Dr. Suzanne Schiffman

Dr. Suzanne Schiffman

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Surgeon

Allegheny Health Network in Pittsburgh, PA

Contact Dr. Schiffman
Dr. W Charles Conway

Dr. W. Charles Conway

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Surgeon

Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans, LA

Contact Dr. Conway
Paul H. Sugarbaker M.D.
Dr. Paul H. Sugarbaker Peritoneal Mesothelioma Surgeon and HIPEC Pioneer at Washington Cancer Institute in Washington, DC

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Paul H. Sugarbaker M.D. Dr. Paul H. Sugarbaker
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Top Peritoneal Mesothelioma Treatment Centers

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center
UPMC Hillman Cancer Center
Pittsburgh, PA

Drs. David L. Barlett, Pingpank and Schiffman perform peritoneal surgeries, and Dr. James Ohr oversees chemotherapy for peritoneal mesothelioma patients. Hillman Cancer Center has the cutting-edge equipment and experienced specialists to offer excellent care to people with peritoneal mesothelioma.

Ochsner Medical Center
Ochsner Medical Center
New Orleans, LA

At Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans, Conway performs cytoreductive surgery with heated chemotherapy, a life-extending procedure for peritoneal mesothelioma patients. Ochsner also conducts clinical trials offering mesothelioma patients access to innovative treatment.

Mount Sinai Hospital
Mount Sinai Hospital
New York City, NY

Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City is home to surgical oncologist Dr. Daniel Labow, who carved his niche with peritoneal mesothelioma and hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC). Decades ago, Mount Sinai established asbestos-in-the-workplace guidelines adopted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Prognosis for Peritoneal Mesothelioma

The prognosis for peritoneal mesothelioma varies upon stage at diagnosis, tumor grade, gender and treatments elected. The rate of cancer progression is highly variable in this type of mesothelioma, making it hard to predict individual prognosis.

In the '80s and '90s, average survival time was around one year. Today, more people are living longer with this disease. Survival is significantly longer for patients who qualify for surgery with heated chemotherapy. Nearly half of these patients live longer than five years.

More than 60 percent of patients are diagnosed too late to qualify for surgery. These patients often elect chemotherapy. The combination of cisplatin and pemetrexed delivered systemically has a response rate around 30 percent with average progression-free survival around 11.5 months and median survival around 13 months.

Chemotherapy delivered directly, not systemically, to the peritoneum without surgery has a higher response rate of 47 percent. Meanwhile, heated chemotherapy delivered during surgery has a response rate of 84.6 percent.

Women tend to live longer with peritoneal mesothelioma than men. When short- and long-term survival is averaged out, women live an average of 13 months, and men live six months.

The median survival of untreated peritoneal mesothelioma is six months.

Patients with tumors containing epithelial cells live longer than patients with sarcomatoid or biphasic cells. The tumor’s grade also impacts prognosis. Tumor grade is based upon how abnormal the cells appear, which indicates how quickly they are likely to grow and spread.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Statistics

  • 60% graph icon Patients diagnosed too late for surgery
  • 47% graph icon Response rate to chemo delivered directly to peritoneum
  • 84.6% graph icon Response rate to chemo delivered during surgery
  • 25% graph icon Patients who survive three years after diagnosis

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