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.”

Mesothelioma FAQs

If you have a specific question about mesothelioma, contact one of our specialists by using the form on the right! Also you can review the common questions below.


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 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.

How is mesothelioma diagnosed?

Malignant Mesothelioma is not easily diagnosed, further complicating treatment of a disease that is fast-spreading and resilient.

One of the first things patients experience is a dry cough and/or shortness of breath caused by a pleural effusion. Shortness of breath is experienced because the effusion (water around the lung) is pushing on the lung, making it difficult to breathe. Most patients presented with these symptoms receive initial treatment but the symptoms tend not to go away, or they may go away but only for a short amount of time.

When symptoms reappear after a few months, the cancer may already be advanced stage. Certain factors—such as a young patient, the absence of lung masses, or lack of a clear reason why the patient has a pleural effusion—are highly suspicious and warrant a more aggressive diagnosis. The earlier mesothelioma is diagnosed, the more varied the treatment options and the better the patient prognosis in most cases.

Most hospitals perform a thoracentesis (drainage of the lung with a needle), but 50 percent of these tests return a negative result. A more aggressive diagnostic approach is therefore recommended, such as a biopsy or a pleuroscopy (camera-assisted biopsy). Diagnostic imaging techniques (i.e. X-rays, CT scans, and MRI) may assist with diagnosis but only a tissue sample can unequivocally diagnose mesothelioma.


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.

What is the difference between extrapleural Pneumonectomy (EPPs) and pleurectomy/decortication?

Editor’s Note: This question was posed to Dr. DaSilva in the live Q&A. The answer is adapted in part from his response.

Neither treatment fits all patients in all circumstances, because every patient and every mesothelioma case is different.

There are passionate advocates of extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP) and passionate advocates of pleurectomy/decortication (P/D). Given patient selection appropriate to the disease stage and the best treatment for that patient, there isn’t any significant difference in terms of overall survival outcome.

For example, a young patient with early stage mesothelioma and good pulmonary function could benefit from extrapleural pneumonectomy, whereas an elderly patient with poor pulmonary function might not do as well with EPP. Again, it’s all about selecting the right patient for the operation.

Your treatment specialist can discuss with you which surgical procedure, if any, is appropriate for your disease stage, overall health and performance status. Also keep in mind that there are surgical options in addition to EPP and P/D that might be more appropriate for you.


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.

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.

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.

Can smoking cause or increase my chances of getting mesothelioma?

No. Cigarette smoking has no known causative effect on pleural mesothelioma. However, if you are a smoker, one of the best things you can do for your health now is to stop smoking.

Researchers have found that people who continue to smoke after a cancer diagnosis may have more pain than patients who have never smoked. In addition, the American Society of Clinical Oncology reports that smoking may reduce the effectiveness of cancer treatment.

Patients who continue to smoke and undergo surgery may have an increased risk of heart and lung complications, including increased problems from general anesthesia. Smoking is also known to impede wound healing and may increase the risk of wound infection.

What is pleural effusion?

Pleural effusion is the accumulation of fluid around the lungs. When the fluid contains cancer cells, it is known as malignant pleural effusion.

Fluid buildup restricts the natural movement of the lung, resulting in shortness of breath, a feeling of tightness in the chest, and pain. Pleural effusion is not a disease; it is a complication of an underlying disorder.

Most pleural mesothelioma patients have pleural effusion. To treat the buildup of fluid, a procedure called thoracentesis is performed. This must be done before further treatment can be administered. Draining fluid from the pleural cavity usually provides immediate relief of unpleasant symptoms.

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.

Is the stage assigned to my pleural mesothelioma important?

Yes. An accurate staging of your disease is needed to determine your prognosis and most effective treatment(s).

The treatment options are typically based on the extent of the cancer, which is determined by staging.  A localized cancer would be identified as Stage 1, for example, and can involve a surgically removable tumor.  Once the cancer cells have spread beyond that original location, and a higher stage level is designated, the mesothelioma is considered advanced and surgery is often no longer an option.

The most popular staging system used for pleural mesothelioma is the TNM System developed by the International Mesothelioma Interest Group. The letters TNM stand for Tumor, lymph Node, and Metastasis. This system is similar to the staging systems used for other cancers and can be summarized as follows:

  • Stage I. In Stage I mesothelioma, one side of the chest’s pleural lining (the pleura) has tumors. The cancer has spread to the outer lining of the lungs, but it is minimal. Cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes.
  • Stage II. Stage II mesothelioma is characterized by tumors on one side of the pleura. Tumors have spread to the outer lung lining, the diaphragm, or the lung itself.
  • Stage III. In Stage III mesothelioma one side of the pleura has tumors, and tumors have spread to the first layer of the chest wall, a single spot in the chest wall, the chest’s fatty parts, the heart’s outer layer, or any lymph nodes on the same side of the chest as the primary cancer.
  • Stage IV. Stage IV mesothelioma is found on one side of the pleura in addition to any of the following areas: the pleura on the other side of the chest, the chest wall, chest organs or any other organs in the body, the diaphragm, blood vessels, the spine, the nerves leading to the arm, or the lymph nodes on the opposite side of the primary cancer site.

Although the stage of the cancer is important in determining a patient’s prognosis, additional factors are also important when assessing life expectancy. The patient’s age at disease diagnosis, status as a smoker or non-smoker, mesothelioma type, the length of time between asbestos exposure and the onset of symptoms, a patient’s overall health, and other factors all play a role in patient outlook.

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.

Published: May 11, 2017 - Updated: Jun 20, 2017