Mesothelioma is a rare but serious cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. It takes 20-50 years to develop and occurs in the lining of the lungs, chest, abdomen and heart.

Types of Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium. The mesothelium is a thin membrane that protects and lubricates different body cavities, such as the chest and abdominal cavities. Learn more about this rare disease in our free Mesothelioma Guide.

Where Does Mesothelioma Develop?

  • Pleural Mesothelioma Icon

    Pleural Mesothelioma

    Cancer of the mesothelium in the lungs. Pleural mesothelioma accounts for 75 percent of all mesothelioma diagnoses because most asbestos fibers are inhaled.

  • Peritoneal Mesothelioma Icon

    Peritoneal Mesothelioma

    Cancer of the mesothelium surrounding the abdomen. Peritoneal mesothelioma accounts for about 20 percent of all diagnoses.

  • Pericardial Mesothelioma Icon

    Pericardial Mesothelioma

    Cancer of the mesothelium surrounding the heart. This is the rarest form of mesothelioma and often occurs in conjunction with pleural mesothelioma.

Symptoms of Mesothelioma

Pleural

  • Effusions (Fluid)
  • Weight Loss
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Persistent Dry Cough
  • Persistent Chest Pain
  • Difficulty Swallowing
  • General Fatigue

Peritoneal

  • Abdominal Pain
  • Weight Loss
  • Nausea / Vomiting
  • Bowel Irregularity
  • General Fatigue
  • Seizures (10 percent of patients)
  • Ascites (Fluid)

Pericardial

  • Difficulty Breathing
  • Chest Pain
  • General Fatigue
  • Weight Loss
  • Irregular Heartbeat
  • Fever
  • Heart Murmurs

Mesothelioma Causes & Risk Factors

Causes

Mesothelioma is almost exclusively tied to prolonged asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that became very popular in the 20th century due to its heat resistance and insulating properties.

These fibers may be inhaled or ingested, and lodge themselves in the human body, which are difficult for the body to expel. In most cases, these fibers end up in the membrane (mesothelium) surrounding the lungs and chest known as the pleura.

In other cases, the fibers may be ingested and end up in the peritoneal lining in the stomach and abdomen.

Over an extended time, these collected fibers agitate the pleural region, causing genetic damage and leading to the development of scar tissue. This can cause otherwise normal cells to become abnormal and replicate constantly.

Tumors often grow on top of these scar tissues, which are called pleural plaques. Tumors may also begin to grow in the abdominal region, causing malignant peritoneal mesothelioma. In some cases, asbestos fibers find their way to the pericardial lining surrounding the heart and cause pericardial mesothelioma. The causes of this type of mesothelioma are still being examined.

Risk Factors

Since asbestos was so widely used, a large number of individuals have been exposed to this toxic substance. People such as factory workers, shipbuilders, military veterans or insulation manufacturers who worked with asbestos while removing or installing it are at risk of developing mesothelioma.

Family members of asbestos workers have inhaled asbestos fibers and dust carried into the home on work clothes and then later developed the disease. This type of circumstance is referred to as “secondary exposure.”

Finding a Mesothelioma Specialist

Selecting a Top Doctor is Critical

Selecting a mesothelioma specialist is the most important decision a patient can make. A general oncologist (cancer doctor) simply does not have the experience dealing with mesothelioma that a specialist has.

Use our free Doctor Match program to find a mesothelioma specialist near you. Treatment prescribed by a mesothelioma specialist has the capacity to significantly extend a patient’s life.

Because of the extreme rarity of mesothelioma (2,000-3,000 cases every year), mesothelioma specialists are not as common as other doctors.

Not every specialist treats each and every type or variation of mesothelioma. Depending on the stage, type, cell type, location, severity and more, certain specialists are a better fit than others.

Diagnosing Mesothelioma

Many patients are diagnosed with mesothelioma after exhibiting a persistent cough or pneumonia-like symptoms. Because mesothelioma takes 20-50 years to develop, its symptoms often appear without warning. Doctors who find any abnormalities during regular checkups may like assurances through testing.

Medical imaging options include X-Rays, CT scans and PET scans. A doctor usually begins with an X-Ray to determine whether there are any abnormalities or irregularity in the suspect area. Following these imaging tests, a doctor may then order a blood test to determine the existence of certain proteins released in the presence of cancer. When cancer cells are present in the body, there are numerous chemical changes and proteins released that may be measured through a blood test.

To confirm the diagnosis, a surgical biopsy is ordered by the doctor, to carefully remove some of the tumor tissue.

Most biopsies are major surgeries and may require a multi-day hospital stay as well as weeks of recovery. The biopsy also determines the type of cell types of the cancer, which is usually epithelioid, sarcomatoid or biphasic. All of this testing helps provide information about the cancer that gives mesothelioma specialists the best opportunity to effectively combat the disease.

The 4 Stages of Mesothelioma

Once doctors confirm a definitive diagnosis of mesothelioma, they try to determine the current stage of the disease. Staging determines the cancer’s severity and also indicates which treatment options are available. Mesothelioma stages follow a system of assigning a number 1-4 to the disease, with Stage 1 being the least severe and Stage 4 being the most progressed.

  • Stage 1 Mesothelioma Icon

    Stage 1

    Mesothelioma is localized to the point of origin, there is no lymph node involvement in this stage. Diagnoses at this stage are rare.

  • Stage 2 Mesothelioma Icon

    Stage 2

    Mesothelioma remains confined to the point of origin, regional lymph nodes may be impacted. Patients at this stage still have many treatment options, including aggressive surgery.

  • Stage 3 Mesothelioma Icon

    Stage 3

    Mesothelioma has spread beyond the point of origin, additional lymph nodes are affected. Surgery may still be an option at this stage.

  • Stage 4 Mesothelioma Icon

    Stage 4

    Mesothelioma has spread to other organs, lymph nodes are affected, and organ failure is possible. This stage has the fewest treatment options. It is absolutely imperative to see a specialist.

Based on the current staging, specialists prescribe a treatment that seeks to remove the cancer, extend life or simply focus on limiting patient discomfort. It should also be mentioned that there are a number of current staging systems for mesothelioma, and a doctor might see different opportunities for treatment based on the system they follow. This is an important reason why patients should always consider seeking a specialized second opinion.

Mesothelioma Treatment

Treatment isn’t one size fits all. Specialists choose from a variety of treatment options depending on the type of mesothelioma (pleural, peritoneal, or pericardial), the cell type and the personal medical history of the patient. Search our Cancer Center Map to find treatment centers near you.

  • Mesothelioma Surgery Icon

    Surgery

    Though typically only available in the first two stages, surgery is the only treatment option known to significantly extend length of life.

  • Mesothelioma Chemotherapy Icon

    Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy circulates medication through the bloodstream, which slows or kills additional cancer growth.

  • Mesothelioma Radiation Icon

    Radiation

    High levels of radiation targeted at the affected area may kill cancerous cells and stop the growth of new cells.

  • Mesothelioma Multimodal Treatment Icon

    Multimodal

    Sometimes a specialist combines a number of different treatment options to combat mesothelioma.

  • Mesothelioma Clinical Trials Icon

    Clinical Trials

    There are many clinical studies being conducted to evaluate and develop new treatments. These clinical trials are an additional option to consider for patients and may lead to a future cure.

  • Mesothelioma Alternative Treatment Icon

    Alternative Treatment

    Many survivors credit alternative health options as instrumental in their recovery. Examples include yoga, meditation, and acupuncture.

Mesothelioma Prognosis

The word “prognosis” comes from the Greek meaning “pre-knowledge”. Prognosis is tied to life expectancy and survival rates. There are a series of steps that may be taken to increase life expectancy and improve prognosis.

The prognosis estimates the likely path and behavior the cancer is expected to take and how a patient is affected by it in the future.

Ways to Improve Prognosis

  • 1
    Finding a Mesothelioma Specialist – Seeing a specialist is the most important way to improve prognosis. They have experience treating mesothelioma, which general oncologists don’t have.
  • 2
    Getting a Second Opinion – Always seek a second opinion before accepting a treatment plan. Second opinions may reveal more treatment options that lead to longer survival.
  • 3
    Explore Treatment Options – Patients should explore all their treatment options with their doctor and decide the best plan based on their diagnosis. Every diagnosis is different and certain treatments work better for certain patients.
  • 4
    Healthy Lifestyle – Patients who maintain a healthy lifestyle are more resilient to aggressive treatment and are more capable of fighting the disease.
  • 5
    Clinical Trials – Participating in a clinical trial can provide access to treatment methods not offered elsewhere. Talk to your specialist about clinical trials that may improve your prognosis.

Learn more about how these steps factor into a better life expectancy and how you can take control of your prognosis in our free Mesothelioma Survivors Guide.