What Is Mesothelioma?

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Mesothelioma is one of many diseases caused by exposure to asbestos, an industrial material used prolifically throughout the 20th century. A rare and deadly form of cancer, mesothelioma forms in the lungs, abdomen or heart. There is no known cure for mesothelioma, but the effectiveness of treatment continues to advance dramatically. Despite a poor prognosis, patients may be able to achieve long-term survival with thorough treatment.

Mesothelioma Overview

There are some critical facts to understand if you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Here are the most important things to know about mesothelioma:

  • Forms in the linings that cover the lungs (pleural), heart (pericardial) or abdominal (peritoneal) organs
  • 3,000 new diagnoses each year in the United States
  • Survival rates are low — only 5% of patients will still be alive 5 years after their initial diagnosis
  • Most often diagnosed in its later stages
  • It often requires a mesothelioma specialist for effective diagnosis and treatment
  • Treatment options include including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation
  • You can receive a FREE Mesothelioma Help Guide to better understand your prognosis and treatment options

What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that affects the protective linings (mesothelium) that cover different organs. It is becoming a well-known health crisis due to its association with asbestos exposure. By nature, mesothelioma takes 20-50 years to produce symptoms after the initial asbestos exposure, making a diagnosis shocking and devastating to patients and their families.

Pleural Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma located within the protective lining that covers the lungs and chest wall (pleura) is called pleural mesothelioma. Accounting for roughly 80-85% of all mesothelioma cases, pleural mesothelioma is aggressive and has a poor chance of survival. Ongoing research into pleural mesothelioma treatments is giving patients a better chance at long-term survival by combining chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, along with new and promising therapies.

Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include:

  • Chest pain
  • Dry, persistent cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fluid buildup in the lungs (pleural effusions)
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fever
  • Fatigue

Peritoneal Mesothelioma

When mesothelioma forms in the lining of the abdominal organs (peritoneum) it’s called peritoneal mesothelioma. The second most common type of the disease, peritoneal mesothelioma accounts for 15-20% of mesothelioma cases.

With the best prognosis of all three primary disease locations, peritoneal mesothelioma patients benefit from effective multimodal treatments involving surgery and direct chemotherapy.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms

Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Feeling full
  • Fluid buildup in the abdomen (ascites)
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fever
  • Fatigue

Pericardial Mesothelioma

Pericardial mesothelioma occurs when tumors form in the protective sac that covers the heart organ (pericardium). The rarest form of the disease, pericardial mesothelioma accounts for less than 1% of all known mesothelioma cases.

Researchers are still unsure of how pericardial mesothelioma forms — an understanding made more difficult by the fact that the majority of cases aren’t diagnosed until autopsy.

Pericardial Mesothelioma Symptoms

Symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma include:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Heart irregularities (palpitations and murmurs)
  • Fluid buildup in the heart sac (pericardial effusions)
  • Heart inflammation (pericarditis)
  • Fever
  • Fatigue

What Treatments Are Right for Your Mesothelioma Diagnosis?

Mesothelioma is a complex disease requiring specialized treatments. The Mesothelioma Help Guide helps patients understand their diagnosis and get the best treatments to improve prognosis.

Request Your Free Mesothelioma Help Guide Now

Who Gets Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma can affect anyone, at any age, and of any background. Sadly, it can affect even the healthiest and most active people, including young adults. However, mesothelioma predominantly affects men over the age of 65.

Roughly 30% of mesothelioma victims are veterans, with Navy sailors accounting for the bulk of diagnoses.

Men make up the majority of diagnoses because asbestos exposure is most common in traditionally male-dominated careers. This includes military or emergency services, mechanics, construction workers and other industrial trades.

Mesothelioma Symptoms Update

Due to the prolonged nature of this disease, many people don’t receive a mesothelioma diagnosis until 20-50 years after they were exposed to asbestos.

Because asbestos exposure is the direct cause of mesothelioma, many victims wonder what asbestos is and how it can cause such a deadly disease. They may feel confused and search for answers as to why asbestos was even used in the first place.

This frustration is common, and empowering yourself with information regarding asbestos use and mesothelioma can help you cope with your diagnosis.

What Causes Mesothelioma?

Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma. Asbestos is a mineral extracted from the ground in places around the world, including the U.S. and Canada. When asbestos mining began in the mid-20th century, it was seen as a tremendous industrial discovery. Asbestos was used extensively in the military and construction projects across the globe.

It soon became apparent to asbestos producers that there were severe health risks associated with handling asbestos. Instead of informing asbestos purchasers of these dangers, the manufacturers ignored the signs in what is now considered a well-known cover-up attempt.

How Asbestos Leads to Mesothelioma

Asbestos is dangerous because it releases fibers into the air during handling. Anyone working around the materials is at risk of inhaling or ingesting asbestos fibers. Since the fibers are so tiny, victims never know they’re swallowing or breathing them in.

After inhaling or ingesting asbestos fibers, mesothelioma victims feel no effect. Instead, the fibers remain unnoticed inside the body and make their way into the deep tissue linings of the lungs, abdomen or heart. Where the fibers end up depends on how you contacted the asbestos. You could have breathed them in, or you could have swallowed them if they ended up in your drinking water or food.

The Mesothelioma Formation Process:

  • Over time, the asbestos fibers further lodge themselves deeper and deeper into the mesothelium of the organs.
  • Following decades of dormancy, the fibers can start to irritate the tissues, causing inflammatory reactions within healthy cells.
  • After enough irritation, the once-healthy cells become triggered and turn into abnormal, cancer cells.

When enough cancer cells form within the organ linings, they can soon outnumber healthy cells. As cancer cells clump together and form tumors (masses of cancerous tissue), it becomes the condition known as mesothelioma.

How is Mesothelioma Diagnosed?

Diagnosing mesothelioma is a complex process. Because it’s such a rare disease, mesothelioma is often overlooked in the early diagnostic steps. Mesothelioma symptoms are also very vague, and can often be confused with other lung conditions like bronchitis. Doctors frequently rule out other possible conditions before considering mesothelioma.

Because of how rare and complex mesothelioma is, patients should always see a mesothelioma specialist for their diagnosis.

Mesothelioma specialists follow these steps when diagnosing this type of cancer:

Physical Exam

Doctors first conduct physical examinations. They ask about symptoms, medical history and past exposure to asbestos. Based on the findings of the physical exam, doctors can determine whether their patient has signs of mesothelioma that require further investigation.

Imaging Tests

If doctors suspect signs of mesothelioma, they’ll order tests to look for abnormalities like tumors. Imaging tests like X-rays, CT scans and MRIs look inside the patient’s body for signs of mesothelioma.

Imaging tests help doctors see:

  • Whether tumors are present
  • Where the tumors are located
  • How far the cancer has spread

Depending on what the results show, doctors may order multiple imaging tests.


The final step in diagnosing mesothelioma is a biopsy, which is the only way to conclusively diagnose mesothelioma. This allows doctors to take tissue samples directly from the tumor and test them for mesothelioma cells.

Though there are several types of biopsies, they all get tested in a pathology lab.

The types of biopsies include:

Pathologists look at the tissue samples under a microscope to determine if there are cancer cells present and if they are specifically mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma Diagnosis Factors

During the diagnostic process, mesothelioma specialists consider different information about the patient’s case to determine the exact type of mesothelioma. This allows doctors to recommend the right patient plan.

Specialists consider the following factors to determine a mesothelioma diagnosis:

  • Mesothelioma location (pleural, peritoneal or pericardial)
  • Mesothelioma stage (stages 1-4 for pleural mesothelioma)
  • Mesothelioma cell type (epithelioid, sarcomatoid or biphasic)

Doctors provide as much information to their patients as possible about their condition. For example, a doctor might tell a patient they’re diagnosed with stage 3 epithelioid pleural mesothelioma. This means it’s pleural mesothelioma of the epithelioid cell type that has advanced to stage 3.

Mesothelioma Cell Types

During diagnosis, doctors determine the the type of mesothelioma cell present in the biopsy sample. Different mesothelioma cell types have unique sets of behaviors and characteristics that determine how tumors will grow and spread.

A patient’s cell type is critical information doctors use to develop the most effective treatment plans.

Epithelioid Cell Type

When pathologists (doctors who examine diseased cells) look at epithelioid cells under the microscope, the cells display certain physical characteristics and behaviors, including:

  • Elongated shape
  • Uniform, regular appearance
  • Lump together as they divide
  • Most common mesothelioma cell type
  • Easiest cell type to treat
  • Spreads to lymph nodes

Sarcomatoid Cell Type

When pathologists look at sarcomatoid cells, they see the following behaviors and characteristics:

  • Spindle-shaped cells
  • Irregular appearance
  • Divide and spread quickly
  • Least common mesothelioma cell type
  • Most difficult to treat
  • Forms nodal tumors

Biphasic Cell Type

When both mesothelioma cell types form in one tumor, it’s known as biphasic cell type. Biphasic cell type characteristics and criteria include:

  • Also called “mixed cell type”
  • Tumors composed of both epithelioid and biphasic cells
  • Must contain at least 10% of each cell type
  • Treatments depend on ratio between two cells

What’s My Life Expectancy?

The general life expectancy for mesothelioma patients is very short compared to some other, more well-researched cancers, like lung and breast cancers.

After diagnosis, the average mesothelioma life expectancy is only 12-21 months.

It’s important to note that mesothelioma statistics are based on historical data and don’t always reflect what a mesothelioma patient can expect.

The truth is that mesothelioma affects each patient differently, and your life expectancy depends on your individual circumstances.

Some factors that determine your life expectancy include:

  • Where the mesothelioma is located
  • The mesothelioma cell-type
  • The stage at which you were diagnosed
  • Your body’s response to treatments
  • Your age and personal health level, including lifestyle and medical history

For example, the average life expectancy is greater than 21 months if doctors detect mesothelioma in its early stages. However, late-stage mesothelioma patients have an average life expectancy of only 12 months.

Mesothelioma Survival Rates

Doctors determine your life expectancy based on your unique case as well as past survival rates of mesothelioma.

By taking a specific timeframe and determining the percentage of people who survived that long, experts come up with the survival rate.

Here are examples of mesothelioma survival rates:

  • 55% of patients survive 6 months
  • 33% of patients survival 1 year
  • 9% of patients survive 5 years

Though these statistics may seem bleak, it’s important for mesothelioma patients to know that these numbers encompass decades of cases. In earlier years, mesothelioma was virtually untreatable as little was known about it.

Today, long-term survivorship has improved dramatically thanks to new therapies and better research. With aggressive treatments, many patients have survived longer than 10 years and there are many long-term survivors still alive today.

I remain optimistic that we can, in the next decade, put together the right combination of patients and treatments to effect a cure, which is our holy grail. — The late Dr. David Sugarbaker, Pleural Mesothelioma Specialist

Working With a Mesothelioma Specialist

Physicians, experts and advocates strongly advise mesothelioma patients work with specialized mesothelioma doctors. Because it’s such a rare, complex and relatively unknown cancer, general oncologists do not have the specific expertise required to fully understand and properly diagnose mesothelioma.

Without the correct diagnosis, mesothelioma patients might not receive the appropriate treatments. Misdiagnoses can cause a lot of grief, confusion and wasted time for patients and their families.

By working with mesothelioma specialists, patients can ensure they get the correct information and undergo the best treatment to increase their chance at survival.

Find the Right Specialist for Your Diagnosis

Mesothelioma doctors across the country are accepting new mesothelioma patients now. Our Doctor Match Program connects you with a nearby specialist to help improve your prognosis.

Connect With A Mesothelioma Doctor Now

What Mesothelioma Treatments Are Available?

Mesothelioma treatments are advancing all the time, thanks to more research, funding and clinical trial developments. A patient’s prognosis can greatly improve based on the types of treatments they receive and how soon after diagnosis they receive them.

Mesothelioma specialists take the latest in treatment research and put together tailored treatment plans for each patient. Treatment plans typically combine multiple approaches executed at different times to deliver the most effective results. Mesothelioma patients generally have three broad treatment options that can be used separately or together:

Surgery for Mesothelioma

There are a few different types of mesothelioma surgery. The most aggressive option is to remove the organ affected by the cancer. An example of this is removing the diseased lung from a pleural mesothelioma patient. When surgeons remove the organ, they also remove as much of the tumor as possible.

Palliative Surgery Update

Another possible type of surgery is called palliative surgery. Surgeons cut into the affected organ to drain fluid buildup (effusions), which helps alleviate painful pressure and swelling so the patient can be more comfortable.

The main types of mesothelioma surgery are:

  • Extrapleural Pneumonectomy (EPP): For pleural mesothelioma patients, the doctor removes the diseased lung as well as the lining around the heart, abdomen and/or diaphragm.
  • Pleurectomy with Decortication (P/D): For pleural mesothelioma patients, the doctor removes the diseased pleura, which covers the lungs and chest.
  • Cytoreduction with HIPEC: For peritoneal mesothelioma, the doctor removes all visible tumors within the abdomen. Heated chemotherapy drugs are then administered to kill any unseen cancer cells.

Chemotherapy For Mesothelioma

Chemotherapy is a type of treatment administered to many cancer patients. Chemotherapy is a broad term that describes types of drugs designed to kill cancer cells. These drugs can be administered intravenously or taken orally in pill form.

Here’s an overview of how chemotherapy for mesothelioma works:

  • Patients undergo several rounds of chemotherapy over a set period of multiple weeks
  • Drugs build up in the patient’s bloodstream
  • Over time, the drugs become more effective at killing off mesothelioma cells

Chemotherapy is often administered in conjunction with surgery. Once doctors have removed as much of the visible tumor as possible, they then prescribe chemotherapy drugs to kill off remaining cancer cells.

Radiation Therapy for Mesothelioma

The third primary type of mesothelioma treatment is radiation therapy. As a common type of cancer treatment, radiation therapy is also administered to mesothelioma patients in conjunction with surgery and/or chemotherapy.

Here’s an overview of how radiation for mesothelioma works:

  • Radiologists aim high-energy rays, like X-rays, directly at tumor sites
  • Radiation beams scramble the DNA of mesothelioma cells
  • Damaged DNA prevents mesothelioma cells from multiplying and spreading

Radiation therapy is a non-invasive way of shrinking mesothelioma tumors. Advanced types of radiation therapy can be extremely accurate and strike tumors from various angles, improving the therapy’s success rate.

Getting Mesothelioma Support from Patient Advocates

If you or a loved one has mesothelioma, get in touch with our Mesothelioma Help Now advocates.

We have a dedicated staff committed to helping victims and their families with:

  • Legal advice
  • Financial support
  • Counseling and therapy

We’re happy to help you with the next steps toward finding treatment and compensation for your mesothelioma diagnosis.

Call us today at (800) 584-4151 or receive a FREE Mesothelioma Help Guide to understand your treatment options and next steps after diagnosis.

View Author and Sources

  1. Medical News Today, “Mesothelioma: Causes, Symptoms and Outlook” Retrieved from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/140859.php. Accessed on November 6, 2017.
  2. American Cancer Society, “What Are the Key Statistics About Malignant Mesothelioma?” Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/malignant-mesothelioma/about/key-statistics.html. Accessed on November 6, 2017.
  3. American Cancer Society, “What is Malignant Mesothelioma?” Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/malignant-mesothelioma/about/malignant-mesothelioma.html. November 6, 2017.
  4. Mayo Clinic, “Mesothelioma: Treatments and Drugs.” Retrived from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mesothelioma/basics/treatment/con-20026157. Accessed on November 6, 2017.
  5. American Cancer Society, “Radiation Therapy for Malignant Mesothelioma.” Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/malignant-mesothelioma/treating/radiation.html. Accessed on November 6, 2017.

Last modified: September 6, 2019