Listen to an audio summary on Mesothelioma Cancer.
Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer affecting the membrane lining of the lungs and abdomen.
Malignant mesothelioma is the most serious of all asbestos-related diseases. Although uncommon, mesothelioma cancer is no longer considered rare. The primary cause and risk factor for mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos.
Making a correct mesothelioma diagnosis is particularly difficult for doctors because the disease often presents with symptoms that mimic other common ailments. There is no known cure for mesothelioma, but treatments such as surgery and chemotherapy have helped to improve the typical mesothelioma prognosis.
Pleural mesothelioma (affecting the lung’s protective lining in the chest cavity) represents about three quarters of all mesothelioma incidence. Peritoneal mesothelioma which affects the abdominal cavity and pericardial mesothelioma, which affects the cardiac cavity, comprise the remainder. Testicular mesothelioma is extremely rare and typically presents with metastases of the peritoneal variety. There are three recognized mesothelioma cell-types. Between 50 and 70% of all mesotheliomas are of the epithelial variety. While prognosis is generally poor, it is considered less aggressive than sarcomatoid mesothelioma and biphasic mesothelioma, which comprise the remainder of cell type diagnoses.
The cavities within the body encompassing the chest, abdomen, and heart are surround by a membrane of cells known as the mesothelium. Mesothelial cells assist in general organ functions. The mesothelium is particularly important to organs that are commonly in motion, such as expansion or contraction of the lungs, stomach, or heart. Lubrication from the mesothelial cells allows free range of motion within the body. The mesothelium of the chest, abdomen, and cardiac cavity are called the pleura, the peritoneum, and the pericardium, respectively. Each of these groupings of mesothelial cells are extremely critical to the functions of the body structures which they encompass.
Malignancies (cancerous tumors) occurring within the mesothelial membranes are known as malignant mesothelioma, or simply mesothelioma. Benign tumors of the mesothelium are known to occur, but are much rarer than the more common malignant cancer.
While tumors of the mesothelium were first recognized in the late 18th century, it was not until the middle of the 20th century that this particular cancer was studied and examined with more detail. It was at this time where suspicions of the cancer’s causal relationship with asbestos exposure became more substantiated. A joint research venture through the Department of Thoracic Surgery at the University of the Witswater and/Johannesburg General Hospital in South Africa provided the most compelling evidence of the nexus between asbestos exposure and the development of pleural mesothelioma.
Incidence of mesothelioma is still quite rare, with only 2,500-3000 diagnoses in the United States each year. There was a spike in reported diagnoses between 1970 and 1984, which has been attributed to the latency period between diagnosis and the height of industrial exposures, which occurred roughly 40-60 years prior to this time. Exposure was common in nearly all industries but was particularly common in the WWII-era military industrial cycle, including Navy Shipyards.
Although this cancer is much more common in men over the age of 60 (largely attributed to the industrial exposures within male-dominated industries), mesothelioma in women and children has been described as well. Mesothelioma causes for diagnosis in women and children are mainly attributed to secondary exposure to asbestos, as it was not uncommon for men to bring asbestos back into the home on their body or clothing if proper cleaning facilities were not available on site.
Mesothelioma is diagnosed through a comprehensive combination of biopsy and imaging scans.
Mesothelioma can be a difficult malignancy to diagnose because the symptoms and pathology of the disease closely resemble other respiratory conditions. For this reason, misdiagnosis is not uncommon in mesothelioma patients. Symptoms of mesothelioma include chest pain, chronic cough, effusions of the chest and abdomen, and the presence of blood in lung fluid.
Diagnostic surgeries, including a biopsy, will typically be required to determine the type of malignant cells that are present in the body. Typically a body imaging scan, including a magnetic resonance image (MRI) or computer topography (CT scan) will be required to determine the extent and location of the disease.
Mesothelioma patients are generally referred by their personal physicians to one of the many renowned mesothelioma doctors in the United States. These oncologists are well versed in the disease behavior and pathology and are the most familiar with cutting-edge mesothelioma treatment options. Dr. David Sugarbaker of the Brigham and Women's Hospital, an extension of Harvard University and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, MA, is at the forefront of mesothelioma treatment through the International Mesothelioma Program.
While mesothelioma is typically advanced at diagnosis, treatment options are available.
Mesothelioma, while certainly an aggressive disease, is a manageable malignancy. While there is no cure for the cancer, mesothelioma treatment options including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy are available for many patients. While a combination of Alimta® and Cisplatin is currently the only FDA approved chemotherapy regimen, several clinical trials are currently in progress utilizing other drugs including Gemcitabine and Onconase, with many showing dramatically improved results in certain cancer patients.
Radiation therapy is also utilized, but typically in conjunction with other treatment methods like surgery and chemotherapy. Surgical resection of mesothelioma is possible in early-stage-diagnosed patients. Aggressive surgeries such as extrapleural pneumonectomy can extend survival rates far beyond previously-thought timeframes. Diagnostic and palliative surgeries such as pleurocentesis and pleurodesis are also common in patients of malignant mesothelioma cancer.
Alternative therapies have also been used effectively by many mesothelioma patients to assist in managing symptoms of the disease and conventional treatments. These treatments are mainly preferential but can be extremely valuable to many patients.
Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos.
Mesothelioma is only caused by exposure to asbestos, though cases have been documented in children or other individuals with no asbestos history. Asbestos is a microscopic and naturally-occurring mineral that lodges in the pleural lining of the lungs and the peritoneal lining of the abdominal cavity. In most cases, several years will pass (up to 60) before mesothelioma develops in those who had been exposed to asbestos.
In many cases, those individuals diagnosed with mesothelioma that have been known to be exposed to asbestos may be eligible for financial compensation from asbestos manufacturers for their illness. Those who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma and were exposed to asbestos should fill out the brief form on this page. We'll rush you a complimentary mesothelioma and asbestos exposure information kit detailing new mesothelioma treatments, active clinical trials, top doctors, as well as how to obtain compensation for asbestos-related health conditions like mesothelioma.
Topics in this Section
Asbestos exposure is the primary risk factor for mesothelioma. Others include Radiation, Zeolite and SV40. Read more in this section.
The primary cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Learn more about direct occupational exposure as well as second hand exposure.
Mesothelioma symptoms often mimic those of common respiratory ailments. Learn more about the signs and symptoms to be aware of.
Read about the diagnostic tests that doctors use to determine whether or not a patient has mesothelioma including imaging scans and biopsies.
Pleural mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma and pericardial mesothelioma are the most common types of mesothelioma. Learn more.
Learn about the different staging systems that medical experts use find out how far mesothelioma cancer has spread.
Learn about the various factors that determine what the prognosis is for individuals that have been diagnosed with mesothelioma.
This section provides a wealth of information about mesothelioma including the disease itself, latency period, survival rates, prevention and more.
This section provides visual depictions of the types of mesothelioma that patients are most often diagnosed with, available treatment options, and the dangers associated with asbestos exposure.
These organizations support the mesothelioma community through a variety of programs that serve to raise awareness, fund ongoing research and assist asbestos disease victims in their fight against cancer.
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