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What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is an aggressive form of cancer. The disease has only one known cause — exposure to asbestos. It can take 20 to 50 years for a person to develop and show symptoms of mesothelioma. About 3,200 patients are newly diagnosed each year in the U.S.

Where in the Body Does Mesothelioma Develop?

Mesothelioma occurs in the mesothelium, which is the thin layer of tissue that covers most of our internal organs. There are 3 main types of mesothelioma. The name of each type is defined by the location of the cancer:


Lungs – Pleural Mesothelioma

  • Occurs in the lining of the lungs
  • 75% of patients have this type
  • Caused by asbestos fibers that become airborne and get inhaled directly into the lungs

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Abdomen – Peritoneal Mesothelioma

  • Occurs in the lining of the abdomen
  • 20% of patients have this type
  • Caused by ingesting asbestos fibers that get stuck in the digestive tract and become a tumor

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Heart – Pericardial Mesothelioma

  • Occurs in the lining around the heart
  • 1% of patients have this type

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Symptoms by Type

The 3 forms of mesothelioma can share similar symptoms but also have some important differences you should be aware of:

  • Chest pain under the rib cage
  • Painful coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unusual lumps of tissue under the skin on your chest
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fluid around the lungs
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal swelling or fluid
  • Lumps of tissue in the abdomen
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing and swallowing
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Fatigue
  • Night sweats and fever

Locations of Mesothelioma

It is important to note that other types of mesothelioma exist, such as mesothelioma of tunica vaginalis of the testis. Because these forms are extremely rare, we have not included them here.

Pleural Mesothelioma

3 out 4 people with mesothelioma have the pleural type.

Pleural Mesothelioma

Peritoneal Mesothelioma

Pericardial Mesothelioma

Prognosis: What Can You Expect?

A word you will hear a lot when learning about mesothelioma is “prognosis.” This is a medical term for predicting the likely outcome of your illness. The prognosis for mesothelioma is always best when the disease is recognized and treated early.

The challenge with early detection, however, is that for most people, symptoms can take up to 50 years to appear. So by the time a person notices symptoms and the cancer is confirmed, it is often too late for effective treatment.

Life expectancy depends on the stage of the tumor. Mesothelioma tumors are staged on a scale from 1 to 4, based on the size and location of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread to other areas of the body or nearby lymph nodes.

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Your Prognosis

The tumors are small and localized. The cancer has not yet spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
For 50% of patients with stage I tumors, mesothelioma life expectancy can extend to 5 years or more with aggressive treatment, which typically includes surgery to remove the tumor.
Surgery is often performed to remove the cancer. This may be an option for patients who are otherwise in good health and when the cancer has not spread too far to be removed completely.
Tumors may have spread beyond the original location. Patients with stage 2 tumors have an average life expectancy of 2 to 4 years.
Much like stage 1 treatments, surgery is often performed to remove as much of the tumor as possible. If the cancer has spread too far, choosing surgery may help relieve or prevent additional symptoms, but it will not provide a cure.
The cancer has likely spread and may involve nearby lymph nodes. Life expectancy is typically a matter of months.
Surgical stage 3 mesothelioma treatment is performed only to relieve or prevent symptoms. The cancer has usually spread too far to be removed.
This is the most advanced and final stage of mesothelioma. At this point, the cancer has spread even more and is located in one or both sides of the body.
Therapy for stage 4 may be more aggressive because the cancer has spread so widely. Surgery may be performed to minimize symptoms and help the patient feel more comfortable, but an operation will not cure the disease at this stage. The focus is on pain management.

What’s Next?

Your Treatment Options