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FAQs—Who Gets Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Only about 3,200 new cases are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. These facts offer little consolation or insight to patients who receive this devastating diagnosis. For those wondering how they developed such an uncommon disease, we’d like to share these answers to some commonly asked questions.

How did I get mesothelioma?

Exposure to asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma. So at some point in your life, you were either directly exposed to asbestos-containing products in the workplace, or indirectly exposed through living or working with someone who was exposed. Some common ways people are exposed to asbestos include:

  • Serving in the military
  • Working in the construction industry
  • Working in the shipbuilding industry

For a complete list, see “Occupations at Risk for Asbestos Exposure.”

What is mesothelioma?

The National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health defines mesothelioma as “a rare type of cancer in which malignant cells are found in the lining of the chest or abdomen. Exposure to airborne asbestos particles increases one’s risk of developing malignant mesothelioma.”

I don’t work with asbestos anymore. So why am I experiencing symptoms now?

When tiny asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed, they can become lodged in a person’s lungs or abdomen and mesothelioma may develop. But the disease often goes unchecked because for some patients, it can take 20-50 years before the first symptoms develop.

Isn’t the use of asbestos banned?

Asbestos has been banned in 55 countries, but many people are surprised to learn that this is not yet the case in the U.S. The Toxic Substances Control Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Consumer Product Safety Act have all banned the use of asbestos in some specific products.

In the U.S. asbestos has been banned in some products, including:

  • Flooring felt
  • Corrugated paper
  • Artificial fireplace ash & embers
  • Pipe insulation

Asbestos is still being used in these products:

  • Cement pipe
  • Automatic transmission parts
  • Drum brake linings
  • Roofing felt
  • Vinyl flooring

What are some of the early symptoms of mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma symptoms are often mistaken for a bad cold or flu. They include fatigue, chills and fever, a persistent cough, and decreased appetite, among other signs. Because people can be fooled into thinking their illness is not serious, they often delay getting medical help. But the earlier mesothelioma is detected, the more treatment options are available. This is why it is critical that patients—especially older patients—let their doctor know how and where they may have been exposed to asbestos. This information can help doctors better understand a person’s medical history—and with that knowledge, order additional tests if needed.

Where can I find the most experienced mesothelioma doctors?

Because mesothelioma is such a rare disease, there are a limited number of specialists experienced in treating it. You want to be sure to get the best possible care from a medical team that is up to speed on the latest information and options. Check out the National Cancer Institute’s designated cancer centers. These centers are distinguished by their scientific excellence and use of a wide range of cutting-edge research to treat cancer.

A recent U.S. News & World Report article on top cancer treatment centers lists these hospitals among the highest-ranked U.S. treatment centers:

  • Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City
  • University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas
  • Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota