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Pericardial Mesothelioma

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This page was medically reviewed by Dr. James Stevenson, M.D. on March 19, 2019. 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.

Dr. James Stevenson, M.D. Thoracic Medical Oncologist

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HomeMesotheliomaTypesPericardial Mesothelioma

Dr. James Stevenson, M.D.

Pericardial mesothelioma is an extremely rare form of asbestos cancer that develops in the pericardium, a membrane that lines the heart. It is one of the rarest forms of mesothelioma, accounting for 1 – 2% of all diagnoses. Prognosis is extremely poor, with most cases being diagnosed only after an autopsy.

Primary pericardial mesothelioma is extremely rare, with fewer than 50 people diagnosed each year. While primary pericardial mesothelioma is rare, pericardial involvement by mesothelioma most often results from extension and spread or pleural mesothelioma. On average, patients survive about six months after diagnosis. With so few cases, research is limited and conventional treatments, like surgery and chemotherapy, are often the standard course of treatment.


What is the Prognosis for Pericardial Mesothelioma?

Pericardial Mesothelioma Survival Rates
1 year after diagnosis 51%
3 years after diagnosis 26%
5 years after diagnosis 23%

Though all mesothelioma patients face a poor prognosis, primary pericardial mesothelioma has the worst life expectancy. The median survival period for peritoneal mesothelioma is six months, and there are only a few case reports of patients who survived one year or longer.

The most important factors affecting the prognosis of pericardial mesothelioma patients are stage of disease, cell type and patient characteristics, like age and gender.

Pericardial Mesothelioma Symptoms

As with all forms of malignant mesothelioma, it may take years for pericardial mesothelioma symptoms to present. Due to its rarity, researchers are unsure of how asbestos fibers reach the pericardium in cases of primary pericardial mesothelioma. The symptoms patients experience may be more varied for instances of secondary pericardial tumors.

Pericardial mesothelioma develops in between two layers of delicate membrane around the heart. Studies have found the tumors initially thicken the membrane, which may limit heart function and lead to more severe symptoms, like cardiac failure. Because the disease develops in the heart lining, patients may experience severe symptoms even at earlier stages.

Common Pericardial Mesothelioma Symptoms
  • Cardiac tamponade (compression of the heart by fluid)
  • Chest pain
  • Constrictive pericarditis (inflammation of the pericardium)
  • Decreased appetite and weight loss
  • Difficulty breathing (dyspnea)
  • Night sweats
  • Pericardial effusion

How is Pericardial Mesothelioma Diagnosed?

Due to its rarity, all forms of mesothelioma cancer are difficult to diagnose, though malignant pericardial mesothelioma presents more challenges. Because the cancer impacts the heart, worsening symptoms can have a severe impact on the body quickly as the disease progresses. Unfortunately, many pericardial mesothelioma patients aren’t diagnosed until an autopsy is performed, with one report estimating about 10 – 20% of cases are properly diagnosed before a patient’s death.

Similarly to peritoneal and pleural mesothelioma, diagnosis typically begins with imaging tests, like x-rays and CT scans. These scans may help identify pericardial effusion, or excess fluid around the heart, or any visible tumors. Blood tests may also be performed to help differentiate mesothelioma from other conditions.

A biopsy is the most important step for an accurate mesothelioma diagnosis. A doctor takes a tissue sample for analysis under a microscope. As part of the process, a pathologist will determine cell type and how the disease can be expected to advance.

Pericardial Mesothelioma Stages

Determining the stage of pericardial mesothelioma is an important aspect of the diagnostic process, as it helps establish prognosis and treatment options. Since there have been so few reported cases, pericardial mesothelioma does not have a formal staging system, but doctors may use more general cancer and mesothelioma characteristics to determine how advanced the cancer is.

Stage 1 or stage 2 pericardial mesothelioma will indicate more localized disease. With limited metastasis, if any, patients will have more treatment options, like surgical resection. Because the disease is difficult to diagnose, many documented cases of pericardial mesothelioma indicate a late stage diagnosis, where the cancer has spread to nearby organs and the lymph nodes. As the disease becomes more advanced, patients may only have palliative treatment options available.

What Treatments are Available for Pericardial Mesothelioma?

Like the more common forms of the cancer, pericardial mesothelioma is often treated with standard treatments like surgery and chemotherapy. Because most patients are diagnosed at a more advanced stage, these treatments are often applied palliatively to prolong life, reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.

For pericardial mesothelioma patients diagnosed at an earlier stage, surgeries like a pericardiectomy may be viable as part of a combined modality treatment plan. During a pericardiectomy, a mesothelioma specialist will remove all or part of the lining of the heart. Ideally, the process would remove all visible tumors.

Pericardiectomy is commonly followed by combination chemotherapy to kill remaining cancer cells. A 2017 review of 103 pericardial mesothelioma cases found that 46% of patients underwent surgery, and 37% were treated with chemotherapy. Both treatments showed improved survival from the average six months, with one case report noting a patient who survived at least 1.5 years and another recent report discussing a patient who has survived four years so far after surgical resection.

Palliative surgeries, such as a pericardiocentesis, may also be an option for some patients. Pericardial effusion, fluid buildup around the heart, is a common symptom of the disease, which can put pressure on the heart and negatively impact heart function. A pericardiocentesis can relieve pressure on the heart by draining the excess fluid. The procedure is minimally invasive, as a needle is inserted into the pericardium and the fluid is then drained through a catheter.

Radiation therapy is also occasionally applied, but has not shown success in extending life expectancy. For some patients, it may be a viable option to reduce symptoms.

Clinical trials specifically for pericardial mesothelioma are not feasible since there are so few cases diagnosed each year. In many instances, pericardial mesothelioma patients are able to participate in clinical trials for pleural mesothelioma. Also, it is expected that newer therapies being used in other mesothelioma types, such as immunotherapy, will have similar effects in pericardial mesothelioma and represent treatment options.

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