Read the most frequently asked questions from families and patients about mesothelioma.

About Mesothelioma

Q: What is mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer which forms on the mesothelial lining that surrounds the lungs (pleural), abdomen (peritoneal) and heart (pericardial).

Q: What causes mesothelioma?
It is caused by inhaling or ingesting microscopic asbestos fibers which can mutate cells and cause tumor growth in the mesothelium.

Q: Is all mesothelioma malignant?
No. There are several extremely rare types of benign mesothelioma including benign cystic tumors, well-differentiated papillary mesothelioma, benign adenomatoid mesothelioma, and localized fibrous tumor of the pleura. All of these forms are treatable, often with a single surgical procedure.

Q: How rare is mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a very rare cancer with only 3,000 cases diagnosed every year. In order for a disease to be classified as a “rare” disease, there have to be less than 200,000 cases a year. You can learn more about this rare disease in our free Mesothelioma Guide.

Symptoms

Q: What are the symptoms of pleural mesothelioma?
The symptoms of pleural mesothelioma are chest pain, a constant cough, and shortness of breath caused by pleural effusions (fluid around the lungs).

Q: What are the symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma?
Peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms are stomach pain, weight loss and fluid buildup called ascites.

Q: What are the symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma?
Symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma are similar to those of other heart ailments and include chest pain and heart murmurs.

Q: What is the “latency period”?
The latency period refers to how long a disease takes to develop. Mesothelioma has a long latency period of around 20 and 50+ years before symptoms develop.

Risks

Q: Who is most at risk of developing mesothelioma occupationally?
The occupations with the highest risk of exposure are construction and manufacturing trades, as well as military service. Occupational exposure to asbestos is the most common cause.

Q: Which gender is most at risk for developing mesothelioma?
Over 80% of all patients are men.

Q: What age group is most at risk?
The majority of pleural mesothelioma patients are 65 years or older, whereas most peritoneal mesothelioma patients are diagnosed before they turn 65.

Q: Can people develop mesothelioma if they had no direct contact with asbestos?
Secondary exposure can occur when a person is exposed to asbestos by another person carrying asbestos fibers on their clothes, hair, or skin.

Q: Why do veterans make up such a significant number of cases?
Between 1930 and 1980, there were 5 million veterans exposed to asbestos, due to its heavy use in military hardware. Veterans account for over 30% of all mesothelioma cases.

Q: I am afraid I was exposed to asbestos and think I may have mesothelioma. How do I get tested?
If a patient is experiencing the symptoms of mesothelioma, they will need to see their primary care doctor who can take X-rays and CT scans. If they show abnormalities then further testing needs to be conducted by a surgeon who will take a tissue biopsy, which is the only definitive way to diagnose the disease.

Cell Types

Q: What are the mesothelioma cell types?
There are 3 cell type: epithelioid, sarcomatoid, as well as a combination of these two types known as biphasic.

Q: Which cell type has the best prognosis?
Epithelioid mesothelioma cells are the least aggressive and the most treatable.

Diagnosis

Q: How is mesothelioma diagnosed?
Biopsies are the only way to definitively diagnose the disease. X-rays and CT scans can aid in the diagnostic process, but examining cell samples under a microscope is the most accurate method.

Q: Do doctors ever misdiagnose mesothelioma?
Some doctors have improperly diagnosed pleural mesothelioma as lung cancer and peritoneal mesothelioma as ovarian cancer. Since it is a rare form of cancer, many pathologists don’t have the experience necessary in identifying this disease, making the need for second opinions extremely important.

Stages

Q: How many stages of mesothelioma are there? 
Mesothelioma has 4 stages. The extent of tumor metastasis increases from stage 1 (localized) to stage 4 (metastasized).

Q: Which stage is the most serious?
Stage 4 is the most progressed and life-threatening diagnosis.

Q: How do doctors determine which stage a patient is in?
Stages are determined according to the point of origin of tumors and the extent of metastasis in the rest of the body. Doctors often use a PET scan to help determine the stage of the cancer.

Asbestos

Q: What is asbestos
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral that was mined heavily over the last century and used extensively in consumer products for its fire resistant and insulating properties.

Q: What products contain asbestos?
Before the 1980’s, asbestos was used in over 5,000 consumer products from spray insulation, fire resistant clothes, and even hairdryers. Asbestos is still used in certain products where the fibers are not friable like joint compound, cement wallboard, and gaskets.

Q: Are there different types of asbestos? 
Amphibole fibers are the most dangerous as they are sharp and can stick into the mesothelial lining, causing the most internal irritation. Serpentine asbestos is more flexible, rounded, and less likely to cause mesothelioma due to its curly shape.

Q: Is asbestos still used in North America?
While the European Union (EU) has banned the use of all asbestos products, the United States only has a partial ban. Asbestos is still used in products where it is unlikely that the fibers will become airborne.

Q: Where is asbestos used?
For many years, asbestos was considered to be a wonder material with excellent fire resistance. It was found in roofing, boiler rooms, auto parts, cement, insulation, military vehicles, and more.

Q: What should I do if I find asbestos in my home?
Individuals with older homes may find asbestos in their home. Don’t touch or disturb it. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has provided a list of asbestos removing companies.

Q: Are some people more susceptible to asbestos than others?
Asbestos doesn’t discriminate, though men are more likely to develop mesothelioma. This is because men are typically more involved in the most at-risk jobs for exposure such as construction, military, roofing, or auto care.