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Mesothelioma Cancer

Expert Fact Checked

This page was medically reviewed by James Stevenson, M.D.. For information on our content creation and review process read our editorial guidelines. If you notice an error or have comments or questions on our content please contact us.

James Stevenson, M.D. Thoracic Medical Oncologist

Mesothelioma cancer is caused by asbestos exposure. It most commonly forms in the lining around the lungs or abdomen. Average life expectancy is 18 – 31 months. Symptoms can include chest pain and shortness of breath. Treatments like surgery, chemotherapy and immunotherapy can help improve survival.

Key Facts

Most common type of mesothelioma, makes up more than 80% of diagnoses

72 years

Average age at diagnosis for pleural mesothelioma


Approximate new mesothelioma cases diagnosed each year

10+ years

Symptoms can take 10 – 50 years after exposure to appear

01. Mesothelioma Overview

What Is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer, develops in the linings of certain tissues. Pleural and peritoneal are the two most common types of mesothelioma. These types develop in the lining around the lungs or the abdomen, respectively. Other types are pericardial mesothelioma and testicular mesothelioma. There are also different mesothelioma cell types.

Mesothelioma cancer develops after exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that often creates dust or powder. If inhaled or ingested, the fibers can lodge in internal organs and later cause tumors to develop. People with occupational asbestos exposure risks have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma life expectancy ranges from 18 to 31 months, with treatment. In general, treatment may help improve factors like quality of life and survival. Treatment plans may include traditional methods like surgery and chemotherapy or newer methods like immunotherapy. Multimodal plans, which are plans with different treatments combined, are common.

02. Symptoms

Mesothelioma Symptoms

Mesothelioma disease symptoms can take 10 – 50 years to present after initial asbestos exposure. When symptoms do appear, they can easily be mistaken for less serious illnesses. Similar symptoms may occur with the flu, pneumonia or intestinal troubles.

This latency period and delay in symptom reporting may complicate the mesothelioma diagnostic process. If you or a loved one have a history of asbestos exposure, it can be helpful to disclose that exposure to a doctor who can do periodic checkups. This may help lead to an earlier diagnosis and treatment plan.

With an earlier diagnosis, patients may have different treatment options. In some cases, early detection may improve a mesothelioma prognosis.

Common Symptoms of Mesothelioma

The amount, severity and type of mesothelioma symptoms vary for each patient. Common signs and symptoms of mesothelioma include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing (dyspnea)
  • Fatigue
  • Fever and night sweats
  • Fluid buildup
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unexplained weight loss
03. Causes

Causes of Mesothelioma

Asbestos is the only definitive cause of mesothelioma. When asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested, they may embed in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. Over time, the fibers can cause inflammation and scarring. This irritation can later lead to the development of mesothelioma tumors.

Depiction of the route asbestos fibers take from inhalation to the areas of the body in which they cause cancers. The background is a silhouette of a person. Small asbestos fibers are shown traveling into the mouth, through the esophagus and trachea, and finally settling in the linings around the lung, heart and abdomen. These locations correspond to pleural, pericardial and peritoneal mesothelioma respectively

How Mesothelioma Develops

  • An individual is exposed to asbestos fibers, which are easily inhaled or ingested.
  • The asbestos fibers become lodged in the linings of internal organs, including the lungs (pleura), abdomen (peritoneum) and heart (pericardium).
  • Embedded fibers irritate and damage surrounding tissue.
  • Over time, tumors begin to form in the damaged tissue.

Before the 1980s, many industries used asbestos. Along with others, the construction and automotive industries frequently exposed workers to asbestos.

Who Is at Risk of Developing Mesothelioma?

Individuals who were often in contact with asbestos are the most at risk of developing this disease. However, any amount of asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma.

Workers in asbestos industries generally experienced higher rates of exposure. These workers may have experienced asbestos exposure at their jobsite. Asbestos can also be a danger to individuals who did not work with it.

For example, workers can bring home the small fibers on their clothing, hair and skin. In this way, it can expose the families and loved ones of workers to asbestos. This is called secondary exposure, or secondhand exposure. Secondary exposure is a risk factor for anyone living with asbestos workers.

High-risk occupations for exposure include:

Veterans are also at higher risk of asbestos exposure. During the 20th century, the military used asbestos throughout the branches in existence at the time. As a result, many veterans of the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy may have encountered asbestos during their time in active service.

04. Types

Types of Mesothelioma

There are four main types of mesothelioma, each based on the location of tumors. Prognosis, symptoms and treatment options vary between the types.

Pleural Mesothelioma

Pleural mesothelioma illustration

  • Pleural mesothelioma develops in the lining around the lungs.
  • It is the most common type of the disease, accounting for more than 80% of all diagnoses.
More About Pleural Mesothelioma

Peritoneal Mesothelioma

Peritoneal mesothelioma illustration

  • Peritoneal mesothelioma develops in the lining surrounding the abdomen.
  • It is the second most common form of the disease, accounting for about 15% – 20% of all diagnoses.
More About Peritoneal Mesothelioma

Pericardial Mesothelioma

Pericardial mesothelioma illustration

  • Pericardial mesothelioma develops in the lining surrounding the heart.
  • It is an extremely rare form of the disease, accounting for less than 1% of all diagnoses.
More About Pericardial Mesothelioma

Testicular Mesothelioma

Testicular mesothelioma illustration

  • Testicular mesothelioma develops in the lining around the testicles.
  • It is one of the rarest forms of the disease, accounting for less than 1% of all diagnoses.
More About Testicular MesotheliomaMore About Testicular Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma tumors can be made of different types of cells with varied properties. The three main mesothelioma cell types are:

  • Epithelioid mesothelioma: The tumors contain epithelioid cells that look similar to epithelial cells found in the skin and other common tissues. This is the most common mesothelioma cell type. Compared to other cell types, epithelioid mesothelioma responds well to treatment.
  • Sarcomatoid mesothelioma: The tumors contain sarcomatoid cells that look like sarcoma cells, which are a type of cancer cell. This cell type makes up approximately 10% – 20% of all mesothelioma diagnoses. It generally responds to immunotherapy better than chemotherapy.
  • Biphasic mesothelioma: The tumors contain a combination of epithelioid and sarcomatoid cells. In general, this type occurs in the pleura (lung lining) or peritoneum (abdominal lining). The percentage of each cell type may affect which treatment options are available.

Recommended treatment methods vary based on mesothelioma cell type and location. Doctors can create customized treatment plans based on each individual case.

It is important to diagnose mesothelioma as early as possible. After recognizing symptoms, doctors confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis with a biopsy. Biopsies are the only way to definitively diagnose mesothelioma. Other diagnostic tools may help determine location and cancer stage.

Common Tests for Diagnosing Mesothelioma

Before performing a tissue biopsy to diagnose mesothelioma, doctors may check for abnormalities. This process involves various tests, like bloodwork and imaging scans.

Imaging Scans

Doctors often use imaging scans in the initial stages of a mesothelioma diagnosis. These tests commonly include CT scans, MRIs and X-rays. Scans, like a chest X-ray, can help doctors determine the extent and location of tumors.

Each scan has different benefits and limitations. Depending on the case, doctors may recommend more than one type of imaging scan. These tests are still useful after a diagnosis is confirmed. Imaging scans can help estimate the stage of cancer, monitor its spread and check for fluid buildup.


Biopsies are an important step in diagnosing and treating mesothelioma. A biopsy, which removes tissue or fluid for testing, is the only way to diagnose mesothelioma. Imaging scans and other tests can play a role in the diagnosis process, but only biopsy testing can be conclusive. A biopsy can also help determine important disease factors, like cell type.

A biopsy is often performed with a needle that extracts a fluid or tissue sample. After the procedure, a pathologist analyzes the sample. Some biopsy methods are less invasive than others.

Blood Tests

Blood tests measure indicators of mesothelioma, called biomarkers, in a blood sample. Doctors may combine bloodwork with a biopsy to confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis. Blood tests alone cannot diagnose mesothelioma.

MESOMARK® is a blood test that has approval for some mesothelioma monitoring. While other tests may identify general cancer indicators, MESOMARK is specific to mesothelioma indicators. Advances in blood test methods may someday support earlier mesothelioma diagnosis.

06. Stages

Mesothelioma Stages

Staging is another important step in the initial diagnostic process. After confirming a mesothelioma diagnosis, doctors often go on to estimate its stage. The most common mesothelioma staging method is the tumor node metastasis (TNM) staging system. Stages range from early stages (1 and 2) to later stages (3 and 4).

This information helps doctors understand prognosis and treatment options. In stages 1 and 2, patients may have varied treatment options. In stages 3 and 4, the cancer has spread, or metastasized. This may mean patients have different treatment options in these later stages versus earlier stages.

A graphic image depicting the four stages of pleural mesothelioma, from stage 1 when the cancer is localized in the pleura, to stage 4 when the can has spread to the abdomen, chest, neck and bones.

Stage 1

With stage 1 mesothelioma, the cancer is only in specific, or localized, areas of the body. Aggressive treatments, like surgery, are often still an option. Life expectancy ranges from 21 months to more than 5.5 years with treatment.

Stage 2

With stage 2 mesothelioma, the cancer has spread to nearby organs and lymph nodes. Some aggressive treatments, like surgery, may still be an option. Life expectancy ranges from 19 months to about 5.5 years with treatment.

Stage 3

With stage 3 mesothelioma, the cancer spreads further to other organs and tissue. Treatment options may become more limited. Life expectancy ranges from 16 months to nearly 5 years with treatment.

Stage 4

With stage 4 mesothelioma, the cancer spreads further to distant organs and tissue. Most treatment options are palliative and aim to increase patient comfort. Life expectancy ranges from 12 to 26 months with treatment.

Doctors use several factors to estimate prognosis, but an individual’s experience may differ from this estimate. Patients from stages 1 to 4 have outlived their original life expectancy. Research advances continue expanding treatment options for early- and late-stage cases.

07. Prognosis

Mesothelioma Prognosis

Prognosis is the medical expectation for how a patient’s disease will progress. A mesothelioma prognosis includes life expectancy, quality of life and other aspects of a patient’s experience. Doctors use information like stage and cell type to estimate survival time and the best treatment options for improving prognosis.

When discussing their prognosis, patients will often hear other related terms, including:

  • Life expectancy: An estimate of the amount of time they will live after diagnosis. This is presented in months or years.
  • Survival rate: The percentage of people in a certain group who are still alive at a specific point in time. This is typically reported in 1-, 2-, 3- or 5-year increments.
Mesothelioma Facts

The average life expectancy for mesothelioma patients receiving treatment is 18 – 31 months.

Each patient’s prognosis will vary based on many individual factors, including age and overall health. In general, treatment can help improve a patient’s prognosis. Mesothelioma specialists can create a personalized treatment plan for each patient. They can also explain what to expect during the mesothelioma treatment process.

Mesothelioma Survivors

A prognosis is a complex estimate and many factors affect it. Treatment generally helps improve prognosis. With treatment, some mesothelioma patients are able to outlive their initial life expectancy by months, years or even decades.

For example, Heather Von St. James is a pleural mesothelioma survivor of more than 18 years. During her diagnosis, doctors said she had 15 months to live. Heather had a multimodal treatment plan that included surgery and heated chemotherapy. Today she supports mesothelioma patients and advocates for awareness of this disease.

08. Treatment

Mesothelioma Treatment Options

Treatment is the best way to help improve a mesothelioma prognosis. This can include improving quality of life and extending life expectancy.

Traditional treatments for mesothelioma include chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Immunotherapy is a newer, promising treatment method that is often used, too. It is an option for many mesothelioma patients.

These methods will often be combined to create a successful treatment plan. This approach is called multimodal treatment. Multimodal plans have yielded the best known patient survival outcomes.

Chemotherapy for Mesothelioma Icon


Chemotherapy drugs kill cancer cells and stop them from multiplying. For mesothelioma, the standard first-line chemotherapy treatment is cisplatin or carboplatin with Alimta® (pemetrexed). It is often combined with other methods.

Mesothelioma Immunotherapy treatment


Immunotherapy helps the body identify and fight cancer cells. It has been successful for patients with average or complex cases. The combo of Opdivo® (nivolumab) and Yervoy® (ipilimumab) has approval for pleural cases. Clinical trials continue testing this method.

Mesothelioma Radiation Icon


Radiation is a standard cancer treatment that uses energy to damage or kill cancer cells. It is commonly used with other methods, such as surgery, to treat pleural mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma surgery icon


Surgery is the method of manually removing cancerous tissue. It may be used throughout the various stages of cancer. In later stages, surgery may have a more palliative than therapeutic intent.

Patients may receive these treatments to remove tumor mass, kill cancer cells, manage side effects or improve quality of life. Some aspects of multimodal plans can also help manage side effects from individual treatments.

Mesothelioma cancer research continues examining emerging treatment options. Emerging methods include gene therapy, photodynamic therapy and TTFields. Patients may have access to these treatments in clinical trials.

Mesothelioma doctors can explain which clinical trials patients may qualify for. Doctors may also include emerging methods in a specialized mesothelioma treatment plan.

Find Specialized Mesothelioma Treatment

For patients with mesothelioma, receiving specialized care is important. Many doctors may not have experience in treating this rare cancer. However, there are many qualified mesothelioma specialists throughout the United States.

These doctors can develop personalized cancer care plans for patients. They stay more up to date than general oncologists on the latest mesothelioma research and treatments. Mesothelioma specialists can help patients better understand and navigate their diagnosis.

Top Mesothelioma Doctors

Mesothelioma specialist is a broad title that may include different types of doctors. These include palliative care specialists, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists and thoracic surgeons. Some specialists are also mesothelioma experts with prominent careers in this field.

Photo of Raphael Bueno, M.D.

Raphael Bueno, M.D.

Chief of the Division of Thoracic Surgery and Director of the International Mesothelioma...
Boston, MA

Photo of Raja M. Flores, M.D.

Raja M. Flores, M.D.

Chairman of the Department of Thoracic Surgery
New York, NY

Photo of James Pingpank, M.D.

James Pingpank, M.D.

Surgical Oncologist
Pittsburgh, PA

Photo of Anne S. Tsao, M.D.

Anne S. Tsao, M.D.

Director of the Department of Mesothelioma Program
Houston, TX

Patients may have a mesothelioma doctor near them. Finding the right specialist is an important step in the treatment process.

Top Mesothelioma Treatment Centers

There are cancer centers across the country with the ability to treat mesothelioma. Many mesothelioma doctors work at these mesothelioma cancer centers. Many of these centers have dedicated mesothelioma teams and may run clinical trials.

Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Boston, MA 02115

The University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center

The University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center

Chicago, IL 60637

Lung Institute at Baylor College of Medicine

Lung Institute at Baylor College of Medicine

Houston, TX 77030

University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical Center

University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical Center

Los Angeles, CA 90095

Find doctors and cancer centers specializing in mesothelioma treatment near you by selecting your state below.

Find Treatment Options Near You

Find Treatment Options Near You

09. Support

Mesothelioma Support and Resources

Patients, survivors and their loved ones can find support through the mesothelioma community. For example, support groups can connect people with others who understand this disease. There are many other ways to get involved in the community or to show support.

Below are ways to connect with others about a mesothelioma diagnosis, treatment and survivorship.

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Explore the Blog

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Attend Events

Connect with other patients, survivors and their loved ones at mesothelioma events.

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Give Back

See how you can help raise awareness and support mesothelioma organizations.

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Get Support

Find the support you need for caregivers and patients.

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10. Common Questions

Common Questions About Mesothelioma

  • What are the most common symptoms of mesothelioma?
    Common mesothelioma symptoms include cough, fluid buildup, shortness of breath and abdominal or chest pain. Patients may exhibit any number of all possible mesothelioma symptoms. Symptoms can also vary based on the type of mesothelioma. Patients often mistake these symptoms for mild conditions and wait to seek medical care. Individuals who have previously been exposed to asbestos and now exhibit these symptoms should see a doctor.
  • Is mesothelioma a form of cancer?
    Malignant mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer. Pleural mesothelioma develops in the lining around the lungs but is not a form of lung cancer. Mesothelioma can also develop in the lining of the abdomen, in which case it is called peritoneal mesothelioma.
  • What type of cancer is mesothelioma?
    Mesothelioma is a specific, rare type of cancer that affects the mesothelium (thin lining surrounding certain tissues and organs). These organs include the lungs, abdomen and heart.
  • What is the life expectancy of someone with mesothelioma?
    With treatment, the average life expectancy after a mesothelioma diagnosis is 18 – 31 months. But some patients have outlived their life expectancy by more than a decade. Combination treatments with surgery and chemotherapy seem to be the most effective for improving survival. Mesothelioma specialists can help patients understand which options may be right for them.