Mesothelioma is a rare, aggressive form of cancer that primarily develops in the lining of the lungs (pleural mesothelioma) or the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma). Caused by asbestos, mesothelioma has no known cure and has a very poor prognosis.
Learn more about various topics related to mesothelioma below, and follow the links for additional information on each subject.
Prognosis and Survival of Mesothelioma Patients
When diagnosed with mesothelioma, the prognosis is usually very poor, as there is no cure for the disease, and typically it is discovered at a late stage of development. Generally, the earlier mesothelioma is diagnosed, the better prognosis a patient has.
- The cell type and location of the tumor(s)
- Whether the disease has spread (metastasized)
- Overall health of the individual
While prognosis is generally poor, there is still hope of survival. For example, Heather Von St. James is a 10-year mesothelioma survivor who has become an advocate for mesothelioma awareness and an outspoken proponent of banning asbestos. Other mesothelioma survivors have shared their stories, which can inspire those who have mesothelioma.
Types of Mesothelioma
There are two ways to categorize the type of mesothelioma a person has. The first is by where the tumors are found in the body (lungs, abdomen, or heart), and the second is by the type of cell structure the cancer has (epithelioid, sarcomatoid, or biphasic).
Types by Location
Mesothelioma is most commonly classified by the location in the body where it develops. Specifically, the cancer forms in the lining of certain organs or spaces within the body, known as the mesothelium. Mesothelioma typically develops in one of three specific areas.
The most common type, pleural mesothelioma is caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers.
Inhaled or swallowed asbestos fibers can become trapped in lining of the abdomen (the peritoneum).
In rare cases, asbestos fibers can get lodged in the pericardium, the lining around the heart cavity.
Mesothelioma can also be characterized by the type of cell that makes up the tumors. The cell type is determined through a process known as histology, which is a microscopic inspection of the tissue acquired through a biopsy.
The most common cell type, epithelioid mesothelioma has elongated tumor cells that are all of a similar shape and size.
Less common than other cell types, sarcomatoid mesothelioma is very aggressive and resistant to various forms of treatment.
Biphasic mesothelioma consists of a mixture of epithelioid and sarcomatoid cells and shows characteristics of both.
Other Cell Types
Other cell type variations exist, such as demoplastic (a variation of sarcomatoid) and deciduoid (an epithelioid variation).
As a rare form of cancer, diagnosing mesothelioma can be a long, complex, and often frustrating process, and the disease is often misdiagnosed. Doctors rely on the symptoms of the patient as well as various types of tests to diagnose mesothelioma.
The symptoms associated with mesothelioma can often look like conditions related to other diseases, which makes it very difficult to diagnose.
- Trouble breathing or chest pain
- Effusion (fluid buildup) in the lungs or abdomen
- Anemia (especially in women)
- Nausea / vomiting
- Loss of weight
Typically, doctors will try to diagnose the disease by eliminating other potential or related diseases and conditions first. This often involves a variety of tests that provide differing levels of information from which to make a determination about the disease.
Imaging tests can include x-rays, CT scans, PET scans, and MRIs, each of which provide a different level of sight into the body without using surgical methods. Because they are non-invasive, these types of imaging tests are often the first forms of diagnostic tool used in detecting mesothelioma.
In some cases, mesothelioma may be able to be detected through the use of certain blood tests that look for biomarkers — unusual substances in the blood that can indicate a particular condition. While no definitive mesothelioma biomarker test exists, these tests could eventually lead to earlier detection than currently exists.
Collecting tumor tissue through a biopsy is usually one of the last mesothelioma tests to be taken. While it is the most reliable test, it can also be the most invasive, which is why doctors tend to wait until they have ruled out other diseases through other tests before taking a biopsy.
Upon a diagnosis of mesothelioma, the doctor will categorize the disease into one of four stages. While there are several staging systems, the TNM System — which stands for tumor, lymph nodes, and metastasis — is the most commonly used.
The mesothelioma tumor is located in only one area and has not spread to other parts of the body.
A large tumor may have progressed to nearby areas and/or the lymph nodes, but has not gone on any further.
Tumors have typically spread beyond the local area to several nearby locations and the lymph nodes.
The tumors have spread into multiple areas and throughout the lymphatic system, invading other organs throughout the body.
Typically, Stage 1 and Stage 2 mesothelioma can be treated effectively with surgery and other forms of therapy. However, Stage 3 and Stage 4 mesothelioma are often treated palliatively (i.e., to relieve pain rather than in an attempt to cure the disease).
Once an individual has been diagnosed by a qualified mesothelioma doctor and the disease has been appropriately staged, the next step is to discuss mesothelioma treatment options and to develop a treatment plan. Although no cure for mesothelioma exists, several standard therapies are available. In some cases, these treatments can improve the patient’s prognosis, extending their lives significantly.
For late-stage mesothelioma patients, these treatments may be used palliatively to reduce pain and discomfort caused by the symptoms of mesothelioma.
Many treatment plans use an approach known as multimodal therapy, which employs two or more of these treatment methods in combination.
Clinical Trials and Emerging Treatments
Depending on various factors such as the patient’s age, tumor location, cell type, staging, and other considerations, some patients may be eligible to participate in a clinical trial. These trials test new and emerging treatments that could ultimately lead to much better therapy options – and potentially even a cure.
Mesothelioma Doctors and Cancer Centers
Once diagnosed with mesothelioma, a patient will likely need to visit with a variety of specialists. These visits may require travel, as the number of doctors who focus on mesothelioma is rather small. There are also some cancer centers dedicated specifically to mesothelioma treatment and research.Top Mesothelioma Surgeons in the Country
What Causes Mesothelioma?
The only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. A naturally occurring mineral, asbestos was once used for its fire- and heat-resistant properties, and it can still be found across the country in many different places, including older homes, schools, public buildings, and worksites. Asbestos is not banned, but its use in the U.S. is limited to certain types of products.
Other Mesothelioma Risk Factors
While asbestos is the primary cause of mesothelioma, other risk factors can increase the potential for developing the disease.
- Genetic factors
- Simian Virus 40 (SV40)
- Carbon nanotubes
- Exposure to asbestos-like minerals (zeolite,erionite)
Additional Mesothelioma Resources
If you or someone you know has mesothelioma, these resources offer additional information about getting assistance.
Get help caring for your loved one who has mesothelioma, including information about long-term care, counseling services, and taking care of your own needs as well.
The costs associated with treating mesothelioma can be significant. In many cases, individuals diagnosed with mesothelioma who were exposed to asbestos are eligible for financial compensation from asbestos manufacturers for their illness. Financial assistance is available to help offset the high cost of mesothelioma treatment.
Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos. If this exposure occurred in a workplace, public building, school, or through the use of an product that contained asbestos, you may be able to receive compensation for medical bills, lost wages, and other related expenses. Learn more about your legal rights.
Resources Available for Mesothelioma Patients and their Families
- Request a Free Mesothelioma Treatment Guide
- Connect with Top Mesothelioma Doctors
- Locate the Nearest Comprehensive Cancer Center
National Cancer Institute – Malignant Mesothelioma
Wagner, J.C., Sleggs, C.A., and Marchand, Paul. “Diffuse Pleural Mesothelioma and Asbestos Exposure in the North Western Cape Province.” Department of Thoracic Surgery: University of The Witswatersrand. Johannesburg, South Africa. 1960.
Grondin, Sean C., Sugarbaker, David J. “Pleuropneumonectomy in the Treatment of Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma” Chest December 1999 116:suppl 3 450S-454S;
Rusch, Valerie W. “Indications for pneumoctomy. Extrapleural pneumonectomy”
Roggli VL, Sharma A, Butnor KJ, Sporn T, Vollmer RT (2002). "Malignant mesothelioma and occupational exposure to asbestos: a clinicopathological correlation of 1445 cases". Ultrastruct Pathol 26(2): 55–65.
Brigham and Women’s Hospital – International Mesothelioma Program