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Malignant Mesothelioma

Malignant mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that affects the thin lining of the body's internal organs, known as the mesothelium. As the word malignant implies, it is a deadly disease that often has a poor prognosis.

There are three primary types of mesothelioma:

Types of Malignant Mesothelioma Resource Icon
Malignant Mesothelioma

What Causes Malignant Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a toxic, naturally occurring mineral that was frequently used across a wide variety of industries until about the 1980s. Microscopic asbestos fibers enter the body by inhalation or ingestion. Once inside the body, the asbestos fibers can cause inflammation and scarring, which ultimately leads to the development of cancerous mesothelioma cells.

There is a long latency period between initial asbestos exposure and the onset of mesothelioma symptoms – sometimes as long as 30 to 50 years. Exposure can happen directly, such as at a jobsite (factory, shipyard, mine, etc.) or indirectly through secondary exposure. Spouses and children of those exposed to asbestos have developed malignant mesothelioma as a result of such secondary exposure.

How is Malignant Mesothelioma Treated?

Mesothelioma prognosis is poor, as often the disease will be diagnosed in its later stages after symptoms have appeared. However, there are several treatment options for the management of this type of cancer.


Surgery for malignant mesothelioma involves the removal of all or part of the pleura, peritoneum, or pericardium. Portions of adjacent organs and lymph nodes may also be removed if the cancer has spread to them.


Chemotherapy is used to kill fast-growing malignant mesothelioma cells throughout the body. It is frequently used in addition to surgery, so as to destroy any cancer cells that may have been left behind after the procedure.


Radiation can help shrink tumors and prevent cancer cells from spreading again, thus possibly preventing recurrence. Radiation is often used as an adjuvant therapy, after the main treatment of surgery and/or chemotherapy is administered.

More aggressive therapies are now possible for patients with mesothelioma diagnosed in its earlier stages. For example, extrapleural pneumonectomy is now an option for many pleural mesothelioma patients who are deemed eligible for aggressive surgery. Extrapleural pneumonectomy involves the removal of the entire affected lung, the pericardium, the pleura, and the diaphragm. This aggressive surgery is performed frequently in early stage mesothelioma patients by Dr. David Sugarbaker.

Top Mesothelioma Surgeons in the Country
David Sugarbaker, M.D.

David Sugarbaker, M.D.

Professor of Surgery, Chief of General Thoracic Surgery, Director of the Lung Institute Map Marker Baylor College of Medicine
Raphael Bueno, M.D.

Raphael Bueno, M.D.

Chief, Division of Thoracic Surgery; Vice Chair of Surgery for Cancer and Translational Research Map Marker Brigham and Women's Hospital

Malignant Mesothelioma Types

The types of malignant mesothelioma are distinguished primarily by the location where they first develop within the body – typically the linings of the lungs or abdomen, but also rarely in the linings of the heart or testicles.

Malignant   Pleural Mesothelioma

Malignant pleural mesothelioma accounts for about 70% of mesothelioma cases, and it occurs in the mesothelial membrane surrounding the chest cavity and lungs. As the most common form of the malignancy, pleural mesothelioma has had more research invested in it, and there are a variety of treatment options available for it.

Malignant Peritoneal Mesothelioma

Malignant peritoneal mesothelioma represents approximately 15 – 20% of all mesothelioma diagnoses, and it is found in the lining of the abdominal cavity. A relatively new therapy called hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) has shown some significant success in treating malignant peritoneal mesothelioma effectively.

Malignant Pericardial Mesothelioma

Malignant pericardial mesothelioma is among the rarest of known malignancies, and represents 1% or less of mesothelioma diagnoses. It occurs within the mesothelial lining of the heart, and it differs from other variants in that it has been known to occur in younger individuals. It has the poorest prognoses of malignant mesothelioma types.

How is Malignant Mesothelioma diagnosed?

The earliest signs of malignant mesothelioma include chest pain, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, chronic cough, or difficulty swallowing. However, because these symptoms are also associated with other conditions, further diagnostic procedures are usually required to make an accurate diagnosis.

Diagnostic tests can include:

  • Imaging Scans: X-ray, CT scan, MRI, or PET scan
  • Blood Tests: Assays that look for biomarkers in the bloodstream
  • Biopsies: Taking tissue samples for study under a microscope

Misdiagnosis is easy with malignant mesothelioma, because the disease's symptoms so closely resemble those of other related conditions such as lung cancer or other respiratory ailments. For this reason those who are at high-risk of mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure should consult with physicians and cancer centers well versed in the treatment and diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma.

Resources for Mesothelioma Patients and their Families

What options do malignant mesothelioma patients have?

Unfortunately, many of those diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma have incurred illness as a result of a negligent exposure to asbestos. It’s now clear that many asbestos manufacturers were well aware of the hazards of asbestos and asbestos exposure. Hundreds of thousands of laborers and workers have been exposed in shipyards, power plants, factories, and other jobsites – thousands of whom develop malignant mesothelioma each year.

Individuals with malignant mesothelioma or any other asbestos-related health complications should consult with a mesothelioma specialist to learn about the treatment options that are available.

Costs Associated with treating malignant mesothelioma

The out-of-pocket costs associated with treating malignant mesothelioma can be significant. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed, you should strongly consider taking steps to help offset this potential financial burden. Insurance companies may not cover the cost of diagnostic tests, clinical trials or other experimental therapies.

Learn more about the financial assistance that is available if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma and exposed to asbestos. Financial aid options available to you can include mesothelioma trust funds, as well as grants to cover travel, treatment, and housing.

View Sources


Carbone M, Ly BH, Dodson RF, et al. Malignant mesothelioma: Facts, Myths, and Hypotheses. Journal of Cellular Physiology. January 2012;227(1):44-58. doi: 10.1002/jcp.22724

Husain AN, Colby T, Ordonez N, et al. Guidelines for Pathologic Diagnosis of Malignant Mesothelioma: 2012 Update of the Consensus Statement from the International Mesothelioma Interest Group. Archives of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine. May 2013;137(5):978-980. doi: 10.5858/arpa.2012-0214-OA

Malignant Mesothelioma Treatment (PDQ®). National Cancer Institute. Updated August 7, 2015. Accessed September 14, 2016.

Roggli VL, Sharma A, Butnor KJ, et al. Malignant mesothelioma and occupational exposure to asbestos: a clinicopathological correlation of 1445 cases. Ultrastructural Pathology. 2002;26(2): 55–65. doi: 10.1080/01913120252959227

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