Malignant mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer in the lining of the lungs or abdomenThe only known cause of malignant mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. When asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested, the body is unable to break them down or expel them. Asbestos fibers invade the protective lining that surrounds many of the body’s internal organs and remain in the body, causing scarring and damaging sensitive tissues. That damage can eventually lead to malignant mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer, or another asbestos disease.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, you may be entitled to financial compensation from the companies that were responsible for your asbestos exposure. Contact us today to learn about your legal options for pursuing the compensation you and your family deserve.

How common is malignant mesothelioma?

Malignant mesothelioma is a relatively rare cancer. About 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with the disease each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The typical latency period for mesothelioma (time between asbestos exposure and visible symptoms) can range from 15 to 60 years.

One study published in The Annals of Occupational Hygiene in 2003 analyzed 796 cases of asbestos-related disease and found that the latency period was about three years less for asbestosis versus mesothelioma. Patients with latency periods of less than 20 years were extremely rare, accounting for only 3 percent of asbestosis cases and 2 percent of mesothelioma cases.

Mesothelioma Information

Causes of Mesothelioma

The only known cause of malignant mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a fiber that was once widely used in hundreds of building, industrial, commercial, and housing products and is still present in millions of U.S. workplaces and homes. The risk of exposure to asbestos remains a very real danger. And symptoms of malignant mesothelioma do not appear for at least 15 years after asbestos exposure.

For those who worked with or around asbestos products, airborne fibers can be inhaled or ingested, lodging themselves in the tissue lining the lung (known as the pleura), chest cavity, or abdominal cavity. These fibers can stay in the body for decades before malignant mesothelioma develops.

There are six sub-classifications of asbestos: actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite, chrysotile, crocidolite, and tremolite. Asbestos, the commercial name given to these fibers, was a valuable material in several industries, particularly steel manufacturing and shipyards, in the early to mid-20th century. Asbestos easily separates when handled, causing microscopic particles to be released into the air and posing a danger to anyone in the vicinity. A vast majority of people diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma faced asbestos exposure on job sites.


Types and locations of tumors

Malignant mesothelioma is so-named because it affects the mesothelium (or mesothelial membrane), a layer of cells covering body cavities and internal organs. The mesothelium is composed of mesothelial cells, which provide a protective surface and play a role in a number of processes such as fluid transport, inflammation, and tissue repair. The mesothelium lines the pleural, peritoneal, and pericardial cavities, as well as the testicles. When asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested, they can enter the mesothelium and injure the mesothelial cells, eventually giving rise to malignant tumors.
mesothelioma types

Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma

The most common type of the cancer is malignant pleural mesothelioma, which affects the pleura — the mesothelial membrane lining the lungs and chest wall. Mesothelioma that begins in the pleura typically results from asbestos fibers being inhaled. Tumors that develop in the pleura may spread to the nearby diaphragm, heart, and blood vessels of the chest. Early symptoms of malignant pleural mesothelioma can include shortness of breath, pleural effusion (fluid build-up), chest pain, cough, and a lack of energy.

Malignant Peritoneal Mesothelioma

When it develops in the peritoneum, the mesothelial membrane that covers the abdominal cavity and the organs within it, the cancer is called peritoneal mesothelioma (or abdominal mesothelioma). Peritoneal mesothelioma is the second most common form of this cancer, accounting for about 10 percent to 15 percent of new diagnoses. Peritoneal mesothelioma may result from swallowing asbestos fibers or inhaling fibers that then work their way into the abdomen. Patients with malignant peritoneal mesothelioma often experience abdominal swelling due to fluid build-up accompanied by abdominal pain, weight loss, and loss of appetite.

Malignant Pericardial Mesothelioma

TThe pericardium is the mesothelial membrane covering the heart. Pericardial mesothelioma is a highly lethal and very rare form of the cancer, accounting for roughly 1 percent to 5 percent of all new mesothelioma cases. Fluid in the pericardial space, shortness of breath, fever, chest pain, weight loss, and heart palpitations are symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma.

Malignant Testicular Mesothelioma

The rarest of all types, mesothelioma of the tunica vaginalis testis (testicular mesothelioma) is a tumor of the membrane covering the testicle. Because of its rarity, there is little clinical agreement about testicular mesothelioma characteristics and symptoms, making diagnosis extremely difficult. Patients sometimes report painful swelling of the testicle, and a doctor diagnoses the cancer intra-operatively (during surgery) or post-operatively, following laboratory analysis. Ultrasound and other imaging tests may also be used for diagnosis.

Signs and Symptoms

mesothelioma symptomsSymptoms of malignant pleural mesothelioma, the most common form of the cancer, often start out like other respiratory diseases such as the flu, pneumonia, or COPD. However, anyone with a history of asbestos exposure should seek medical attention immediately if he or she exhibits these symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Pleural effusion (fluid on the lungs)
  • Weight loss
  • Persistent cough
  • Loss of appetite


Malignant mesothelioma is one of many cancers that is still considered incurable. Treatment is difficult because the cancer is:

  • Very aggressive
  • Fast-growing
  • Usually diagnosed in the late stages

Many treatments focus on maximizing life expectancy and decreasing the pain and symptoms associated with malignant pleural mesothelioma and other forms of the cancer. Patients may undergo surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. Mesothelioma treatments are primarily based on methods used for other cancers.

There are some rays of hope for mesothelioma sufferers — with the success of recent research and clinical trials, new treatments have been developed that specifically target malignant mesothelioma. Targeted therapies take advantage of the unique genetic characteristics of the patient, and personalized treatments allow doctors to select an approach that is most effective for each patient.

Cell Types

Mesothelioma cells are grouped into three main categories: epithelioid, sarcomatoid (fibrous), and biphasic (mixed). Epithelioid mesothelioma is by far the most common, while sarcomatoid mesothelioma is the least diagnosed and most difficult to treat.

Each case is unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. The stage of the disease and the tumor’s location are the two most important factors when determining treatment options. More aggressive treatments can be applied to epithelioid cells due to a better prognosis than sarcomatoid and biphasic cases.

A second opinion is recommended for all patients diagnosed with sarcomatoid mesothelioma and biphasic mesothelioma. An accurate diagnosis is the key to getting the best and proper treatments. Learn more about mesothelioma cell types.

Orphan Disease

Malignant mesothelioma is known as an orphan disease in the United States. An orphan or rare disease status is assigned to a disease or disorder if it affects fewer than 200,000 Americans at any given time. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates that 25 million people are affected by more than 6,000 rare diseases. According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, 1 out of 10 Americans has a rare disease.

Malignant mesothelioma is diagnosed in 3,000 Americans each year and shares the orphan disease distinction with other well-known diseases including multiple sclerosis, AIDS, and cerebral palsy. According to government statistics, 85 percent to 90 percent of orphan diseases are serious or life-threatening, yet only about 200 of them currently have any effective treatments.

However, there is hope. The government and pharmaceutical companies are always pursuing effective treatments for rare disease sufferers through research and clinical trials. In 2012, the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the European Commission joined forces to form the International Rare Disease Research Consortium. That group is committed “to the development of 200 new rare disease treatments by the year 2020 and the development of diagnostics for all rare disorders.”

Malignant Mesothelioma FAQs

What is mesothelioma asbestos cancer?

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that is caused when a person inhales or ingests asbestos fibers. It develops in the mesothelium, which is a tissue membrane that lines the chest cavity, abdominal cavity, lungs, and other internal organs. Because the disease’s only known cause is asbestos, mesothelioma is sometimes called the asbestos cancer.

What is the difference between asbestos and mesothelioma?

Asbestos refers to a group of six fibrous minerals that occur naturally in the environment. These minerals have been used in many industrial and household products over the years. Asbestos is considered a dangerous carcinogen, which means it is a cause of cancer. Mesothelioma is a type of cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

How do you get mesothelioma?

Malignant mesothelioma can develop 15 to 60 years after a person was exposed to asbestos. Most people came into contact with asbestos on the job, such as at factories, shipyards, construction sites, and industrial facilities. However, others have been diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma after secondhand exposure to asbestos, such as from coming into contact with the dangerous material when it was carried home on loved one’s uniforms.

How does asbestos cause mesothelioma?

People who are exposed to asbestos typically inhale tiny fibers that stick in the pleura tissue lining the lungs and coating the chest wall. (That’s why pleural mesothelioma is the most common type of the cancer.) These asbestos fibers can cause irritation and inflammation in the pleura for many years before malignant pleural mesothelioma develops.

In some cases, people ingest rather than inhale the microscopic asbestos fibers, which can then become lodged in the tissue lining the abdominal cavity and organs. This can eventually cause peritoneal mesothelioma, also known as abdominal mesothelioma. In rare cases, the asbestos fibers make their way to the tissue lining the heart or the testicles, resulting in pericardial or testicular mesothelioma.

How dangerous is asbestos?

Asbestos poses a serious health hazard to anyone exposed to it. Since the 1970s, the U.S. government has been working to reduce the use of asbestos-containing materials and has implemented asbestos safety precautions for workers who may come into contact with the deadly material. However, it is still not completely banned in the United States. And there is no safe level of exposure.

Asbestos exposure can lead to a number of serious diseases, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis.

What causes mesothelioma other than asbestos?

Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, compared with lung cancer, which can be caused by smoking as well as asbestos exposure.

When does mesothelioma develop?

Malignant mesothelioma can develop 15 to 60 years after a person was exposed to asbestos. Because the latency period for the disease is so long, many people do not immediately connect their symptoms to their asbestos exposure. However, it is important for anyone who has been exposed to asbestos to tell the doctor immediately if he or she is experiencing any symptoms indicating lung disease.

Is mesothelioma the same as lung cancer?

People may confuse malignant mesothelioma with lung cancer. However, these are two separate types of cancer. Lung cancer is a carcinoma that affects the lung itself. Mesothelioma is a cancer that attacks the mesothelium tissue that lines the lungs, chest cavity, and other organs in the body. Exposure to asbestos can cause both types of cancer, but it is the only known cause of malignant mesothelioma.

What is asbestosis disease?

Asbestosis disease is a chronic lung condition that is caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. The asbestos fibers lodge in tiny sacs in the lungs, known as alveoli. Symptoms of asbestosis include shortness of breath, tightness and pain in the chest, chronic cough, loss of appetite, weight loss, and clubbing of fingers and toes. Treatment can include use of an oxygen tube or mask, pulmonary rehabilitation exercises, or a lung transplant in extreme cases.

Are asbestosis and mesothelioma the same?

No. Although both of these diseases, along with lung cancer, are commonly associated with exposure to asbestos, they are not the same.
Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease, not a cancer. It is caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers, which can get stuck in the small sacs in the lungs. Having asbestosis can increase a patient’s chances for developing asbestos-related lung cancer.

Malignant mesothelioma is a cancer. It affects the mesothelium tissue, which lines the lungs and chest wall, as well as the abdominal cavity, heart, and testicles. Malignant mesothelioma is caused by the inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers, which lodge in the mesothelium tissue.

Can adenocarcinoma be caused by asbestos?

Adenocarcinoma is a cancer that originates in the glandular cells. According to the National Cancer Institute, most cancers of the lung, prostate, colon, pancreas, and breast are adenocarcinomas. Inhalation of asbestos fibers can be a cause of adenocarcinoma in the lungs.

What is malignant pleural mesothelioma?

Malignant pleural mesothelioma is caused when asbestos fibers or dust is inhaled and sticks in the pleura tissue that coats the lungs and chest cavity. These fibers can cause irritation in the tissue, resulting in pleural plaques, diffuse pleural thickening, pleural effusion, and other conditions. Malignant pleural mesothelioma does not typically develop until 15 to 60 years after a person was exposed to asbestos.

Why is malignant pleural mesothelioma the most common type of mesothelioma?

Most people are exposed to asbestos when fibers from asbestos-containing materials become airborne. This could happen when cutting, sanding, drilling, filing, or otherwise disturbing these dangerous materials. In the past, some workers also were exposed to raw asbestos, which was mixed with other materials to form products such as asbestos cement.

Airborne asbestos fibers could easily drift across an entire worksite, putting everyone in the vicinity at risk, not just those who were working directly with the material. This widespread exposure risk makes pleural mesothelioma the most common type of the disease.

Can mesothelioma be inherited?

No, malignant mesothelioma cannot be inherited, and it is not contagious. However, family members could have been exposed to asbestos secondhand (known as take-home asbestos) when those who worked with the material accidentally brought fibers home on clothing or uniforms. Secondhand exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma.

Is there a test for asbestos exposure?

Although there are no mesothelioma screening tests yet, if you know or suspect that you have been exposed to asbestos, you should talk to your doctor about doing a chest X-ray once a year. X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs can be used to help diagnose mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases early. Also, cutting-edge blood tests (such as the MESOMARK blood test) have the potential to improve your chances of early detection.

What are the symptoms of mesothelioma?

The symptoms of mesothelioma, particularly pleural mesothelioma, can be confused with those of many other less serious diseases. Anyone who has been exposed to asbestos in the past should talk to their doctor immediately if they begin to experience:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Pain in the chest
  • A build-up of fluid on the lungs (known as pleural effusion)
  • Ongoing cough
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss

How are you diagnosed with mesothelioma?

Your doctor will first do a physical exam and talk to you about your symptoms and work history. He or she will likely perform a chest X-ray, CT scan, MRI, and other tests. A biopsy will ultimately be needed to confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis.

How do you treat malignant mesothelioma?

Treatment for malignant mesothelioma will depend on the patient’s health and the stage at which the cancer was caught. The most common treatment options include:

  • Surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy

The patient’s doctor may also help a family find clinical trials for mesothelioma or recommend holistic treatments to improve the patient’s quality of life.

Why is mesothelioma so hard to treat?

Treatment for malignant mesothelioma is complicated by many factors. First, because people may not develop mesothelioma until decades years after they were exposed to asbestos, many patients are older and in poor health by the time they are diagnosed. This leaves them fewer options for treatment.

In addition, because the aggressive cancer is so rare and symptoms are similar to other diseases, doctors may not recognize it right away. This means many cases of malignant mesothelioma are not diagnosed until the cancer has progressed to a stage that is much more difficult to treat.

Is mesothelioma always malignant?

Benign (or noncancerous) tumors can develop in the mesothelium tissue lining. However, these tumors are not the result of asbestos exposure, and they can be removed with a positive prognosis for the patient. Unfortunately, though, the large majority of mesothelioma cases are malignant. Benign cases are extremely rare.

Can a benign tumor turn into cancer?

Benign tumors, if not removed, are usually carefully monitored for changes that may indicate they have turned cancerous. For people who have had a benign mesothelioma tumor removed, there is a risk that the tumor could come back as cancer.

Is a malignant tumor curable?

In some cases, doctors may be able to remove a malignant tumor and attempt to kill off any remaining cancer cells with chemotherapy and radiation. However, even if the surgery and treatment are successful, that does not mean a patient is “cured.” The tumor can come back. Particularly in the case of mesothelioma, complete eradication of the cancer is not possible.

Is mesothelioma curable?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for malignant mesothelioma. However, there are many palliative treatments available that can help ease a patient’s pain and possibly extend his or her life expectancy. In addition, researchers are always exploring new drugs and treatment options that provide hope for a cure in the future.

What is the prognosis for mesothelioma?

Because mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer that is often detected in the late stages, the prognosis for patients is not good. Treatment options generally focus on keeping a patient comfortable, rather than on eradicating the cancer. The earlier the cancer is detected, though, the better the prognosis. So people who have been exposed to asbestos in the past should see a doctor at the first sign of symptoms.

What is the life expectancy of a person with mesothelioma?

Research has estimated a median survival time for malignant mesothelioma patients of less than a year. In cases where the cancer is diagnosed early and treatment is aggressive, research has shown a life expectancy of two to five years.

Patients can improve their life expectancy by focusing on their overall health and exploring every mesothelioma treatment option available, including clinical trials.

Is mesothelioma fatal?

Unfortunately, yes. Researchers have not yet found a cure for the disease, and patients typically do not have a long life expectancy. However, treatment options are constantly evolving, and there is hope that life expectancies will improve with future research.

What are the stages of mesothelioma?

The progression of pleural mesothelioma is measured in four stages, which can depend on tumor growth or growth in lymph nodes:

  • Stage 1: The cancer is only found on one side of the pleura lining the chest.
  • Stage 2: The cancer has metastasized, or spread.
  • Stage 3: The cancer has spread beyond one side of the chest (or further spreading within the same side, depending on the staging system being used to measure).
  • Stage 4: The cancer has spread to other organs or the blood.

Malignant pleural mesothelioma is the only type of mesothelioma for which there are established staging systems.

How long do you have to live with Stage 4 cancer?

Because Stage 4 means that the mesothelioma has spread, or metastasized, people diagnosed at this stage typically have less than 12 months to live.

Is it possible to cure Stage 4 cancer?

No, patients diagnosed with Stage 4 mesothelioma are in the advanced stage of the disease and have fewer treatment options available. Although there is no cure for mesothelioma at any stage, patients are often not diagnosed until the cancer has reached this advanced stage, making their prognosis unfavorable. Treatment for patients with Stage 4 mesothelioma focuses on making the person as comfortable as possible.

What are the most common surgeries for mesothelioma?

If a patient is in relatively good health and the cancer is detected early, surgery may be an option. Some of the common surgeries for malignant mesothelioma include:

  • Extrapleural Pneumonectomy (EPP), where the surgeon removes the lung, the affected pleura and pericardium tissue, and nearby lymph nodes. An extrapleural pneumonectomy is an extremely invasive surgery that is not an option for all patients.
  • Pleurectomy Decortication (P/D), where the doctor removes the pleura lining the affected lung and the chest cavity, as well as the tissue that lines the mediastinum and the diaphragm. Pleurectomy decortication is less invasive than an extrapleural pneumonectomy.
  • Cytoreduction or debulking surgery, which is used to treat peritoneal mesothelioma by removing all signs of the cancer from the abdominal cavity. This surgery is usually done at the same time as heated interoperative chemotherapy.

Other surgical procedures your doctor may consider include debulking pleurectomy, decortication of the lung, segmentectomy of the lung, or a lobectomy. Most of these treatments would be in addition to radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

How can I find clinical trials for mesothelioma?

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma or another form of the disease, you should talk to your doctor about your options for participating in a clinical trial. Although there is no single directory of clinical trials to look through, your doctor can point you in the right direction and discuss how a trial may fit into your current treatment plan. Here are some sites to help start your search:

How much does treatment for mesothelioma cost?

Unfortunately, treatment for malignant mesothelioma can be extremely expensive. For example, a pleural mesothelioma patient who needs surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and follow-up treatment could easily face more than $100,000 in medical bills. Then there are the additional costs of ongoing daily care.

However, patients and their families may be entitled to compensation from asbestos companies to cover the cost of mesothelioma treatment and other expenses. Patients and families should seek legal advice as soon as possible to learn about their options for financial help.

How much does it cost to hire a lawyer for a mesothelioma case?

Many families find themselves overwhelmed by the cost of mesothelioma treatment and the challenges of caring for a loved one full time. You should not have to worry about how you can afford legal help, too.

A good malignant mesothelioma attorney will provide a free initial consultation on your case. You should also not be charged anything to get started on your claim. Instead, the attorney should be willing to handle your case on a contingency fee basis, which means you don’t pay anything until the attorney recovers compensation for you.

Lisa Hyde-Barrett

About the Author - 

Lisa Hyde-Barrett has helped ease the stress of patients and their families by offering a comforting hand. Lisa has 25 years of experience as a thoracic surgery nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital a top 5 nationally ranked cancer hospital. Lisa works with leading nationally-recognized surgeons who specialize in mesothelioma. Through her extensive experience caring for mesothelioma patients, she is a facilitator for the patient to help them maintain control and dignity over their treatment of their disease and to assist with the patient’s wishes. She is passionate about helping the mesothelioma community.

Published: May 11, 2017 - Updated: May 14, 2017