What Is Malignant Mesothelioma?
Malignant mesothelioma is a rare cancer that grows in the protective linings that cover various organs called the mesothelium. Mesothelioma most commonly develops in the lining of the lungs (pleura) or abdomen (peritoneum). In rare cases, mesothelioma tumors can grow in the linings of the heart (pericardium) or testes (tunica vaginalis)
- Around 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year.
- The average life expectancy with treatment is 12-21 months.
- The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure.
- 30% of all mesothelioma victims are U.S. military veterans.
- Mesothelioma victims are eligible for financial compensation, averaging $1-1.4 million.
Dennis, a victim of mesothelioma, talks about his journey from diagnosis to filing an asbestos claim. View Transcript.
Duration: 2 min 48 sec
The specialist called me one night at 5:30 and I thought, “this is odd time for them to be calling me.”
He said, “Dennis, I have the results for your test.”
And my reaction was, “Oh, good. What do you got?”
He didn’t speak for like five or seven seconds and I thought, “Oh my god, this is it.”
And he said, “The results from the biopsy are you have mesothelioma, you’ve been around asbestos.”
They determined I had peritoneal mesothelioma, that means it’s mostly in my stomach.
I asked her, “How long am I going to live, doctor?”
She told me, “I see five to ten years and I will hope for ten to fifteen.”
So I thought, “Oh my god, I just lose my dad three months earlier, now I got cancer.”
I had fun being a mechanic. The dust from brake jobs, yeah there’s a lot, especially in the hub of the wheel; got to get all the dust away so you can put in the new stuff.
I knew there was asbestos in it but I didn’t know it was harmful. I didn’t know it would cause cancer.
Do I call the attorneys? I didn’t know I would get these benefits. It’s helped complete our – make our living financially, we would have been in Hell in high water without these benefits.
I had a legal team on my side in two or three days I believe, and I was very comfortable.
They were real people and they came to my house. They treated me like a person, not a number. They took care of every step and they explained to me the steps that would be taken and as time went on, they needed to they would call me on the phone and let me know and it was a good experience.
If someone was diagnosed with mesothelioma, as I was. I would tell them, first of all, you need help like I did. We were given something we were never warned about, that asbestos was in the things we worked with.
They made it very personal for me in a good way. For my wife, and kids and my family, they really helped me and they treated me like a person.
Causes of Mesothelioma
The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure.
From the 1930s to the early 1980s, blue-collar industries and the military widely used asbestos-based products without knowing the risks.
Manufacturers of asbestos-containing products knew the deadly risks, but they hid the truth because they could make a huge profit by selling these tainted goods. Many people develop mesothelioma and other illnesses like lung cancer and asbestosis.
How Asbestos Fibers Cause Mesothelioma
- Exposure – When asbestos products are disturbed, the fibers may be inhaled or ingested.
- Buildup – The asbestos fibers may then become lodged into various organ linings.
- Damage – Once the fibers become stuck, they harm healthy tissue for decades.
- Cancer – In some cases, this tissue damage causes the formation of cancerous tumors.
Cancer researchers are still trying to determine why some people exposed to asbestos develop mesothelioma and others develop different asbestos-related diseases.
Types of Mesothelioma
There are four types of mesothelioma, and each type affects a different location in the body. Mesothelioma symptoms and treatment options vary by type.
Malignant pleural mesothelioma develops in the protective lining that covers the chest cavity and lungs (pleura). It is the most common form of mesothelioma.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), it is the most common type of mesothelioma, accounting for roughly 80% of all cases diagnosed yearly.
Doctors believe pleural mesothelioma is the most prominent form of the cancer because asbestos fibers are most easily inhaled.
Early symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include:
- Difficulty eating or breathing
- Fluid buildup in the lungs (pleural effusion)
- Painful tumors build up in the body
- Persistent cough
Pleural mesothelioma is the only form of the disease with an official staging system. Four pleural mesothelioma stages exist in the Tumor Node Metastasis (TNM) staging system.
Early-stage pleural mesothelioma is contained in the main lung system in the early stages. Cancer hasn’t spread far in the first two stages and is often treatable.
Most patients get diagnosed in the later stages (3 and 4), and treatments may still be available in the later stages, including options to ease symptoms. Treatment can greatly increase your chances of prolonged survival and even mesothelioma remission. In addition to surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation can help slow the disease significantly.
According to the TNM staging system, there are four pleural mesothelioma stages. Cancer hasn’t spread far in the first two stages and is often treatable. Cancer has spread through the body by the later stages, but treatments may still be available, including options to ease symptoms.
Get your Free Mesothelioma Guide to learn more about each type and stage of mesothelioma — and what treatments are available to help you or a loved one fight this cancer.
Peritoneal mesothelioma develops in the protective lining of the abdomen (peritoneum). This lining protects the abdominal organs, but when asbestos fibers are ingested, they may get lodged in the digestive tract and, over time, develop into malignant cancer.
Peritoneal mesothelioma is the second most common type of this cancer and affects around 10% of all patients.
Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include:
- Abdominal fluid buildup (ascites)
- Abdominal pain
- Diarrhea and/or constipation
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
According to leading medical experts, peritoneal mesothelioma has the best treatment success rate and the highest survival rates of all types of mesothelioma.
Roughly 47% of patients live at least five years after diagnosis if they receive comprehensive treatment, such as cytoreduction with HIPEC (heated chemotherapy).
Pericardial mesothelioma forms in the heart’s lining (pericardium) and accounts for less than 1% of all mesothelioma cases. It has a very low life expectancy, with patients living for 2-6 months on average after diagnosis.
Testicular mesothelioma develops in the lining of the testes (tunica vaginalis). This type of mesothelioma is very rare, with only 289 cases reported. The average life expectancy of testicular mesothelioma patients is 46.7 months (or nearly four years).
The Four Stages of Mesothelioma
The four stages of mesothelioma are a general illustration of how far the cancer cells have spread throughout the body.
The staging information helps determine a patient’s available treatment options and overall survival time.
- The cancer has not yet spread beyond its origin
- The average life expectancy is about 21 months
- Treatments may improve life expectancy by several months or years
Learn More About Stage 1 Mesothelioma
- The cancer has spread slightly, possibly into nearby lymph nodes
- The average life expectancy is about 19 months
- Patients still have many treatment options to increase life expectancy
Learn More About Stage 2 Mesothelioma
- Mesothelioma has spread into nearby tissues, organs, or lymph nodes
- The average life expectancy is around 16 months
- Treatments focus on slowing disease spread and managing symptoms
Learn More About Stage 3 Mesothelioma
- The cancer has invaded sites in distant areas of the body
- The average life expectancy is about 12 months
- Patients undergo palliative (pain-relieving) treatments
Learn More About Stage 4 Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma cancer displays distinct symptoms depending on where the tumors first formed. That said, some general mesothelioma symptoms are common among most patients.
Common symptoms of malignant mesothelioma include:
- Fluid buildup in the chest (pleural effusions)
- Fluid buildup in the abdomen (ascites)
- Loss of appetite
- Night sweats
Patients whose cancer has not yet spread usually experience mild and vague symptoms. Sometimes, patients aren’t aware they’re sick until their cancer is quite advanced.
When cancer has spread, palliative care can help patients manage their mesothelioma symptoms and improve their quality of life. These treatments are commonly available as part of end-of-life care plans.
Download our Free Symptoms Checklist to track any signs of mesothelioma and share it with your doctor so you can get an accurate diagnosis.
Getting an accurate mesothelioma diagnosis from a specialist is the first step in receiving treatment you’ll need to live longer.
Doctors usually take multiple steps to diagnose mesothelioma, beginning with a physical examination and ending with a biopsy. A biopsy collects tissue or fluid from the mesothelioma tumor and is the only way to confirm a diagnosis.
Learn about the steps doctors take to diagnose mesothelioma below.
1. Physical Exam
Patients who display symptoms of mesothelioma are encouraged to get a physical examination by their doctor. During this initial visit, patients should tell their doctor about their history of asbestos exposure if they are aware of any.
The doctor may then request blood tests or an imaging scan of the patient’s chest or abdomen.
2. Imaging Tests
Imaging scans allow physicians to see if there are any abnormalities in a patient’s body.
Doctors often use imaging tests such as CT (computer tomography) scans, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans, PET (positron emission tomography) scans, and X-rays to help diagnose mesothelioma and rule out other illnesses.
While imaging scans are important, doctors cannot use them exclusively to diagnose mesothelioma.
Doctors will order a biopsy if imaging scans reveal a possibly cancerous tumor or mass in the chest or abdomen.
Doctors remove a tissue or fluid sample from the tumor during a biopsy by using surgery or inserting a special needle into the affected area. This sample is then studied under a microscope to see if cancer cells are present.
Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis & Second Opinions
Unfortunately, since it is so rare, mesothelioma cancer can often be misdiagnosed as a more common illness, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and more. A mesothelioma misdiagnosis can greatly derail the process of getting proper treatment to manage your condition.
Misdiagnosis can also prevent you from getting the right treatments and give the cancer more time to spread. No matter the diagnosis, it’s crucial for patients to get a second opinion from a mesothelioma specialist to avoid a misdiagnosis.
Mesothelioma Cell Types
As part of a biopsy, specialists can see which type of mesothelioma cells make up a tumor. There are three mesothelioma cell types, and each can affect a patient’s overall health outlook.
The three mesothelioma cell types include:
- Epithelioid mesothelioma: Epithelioid mesothelioma is the most common cell type, accounting for 70% of all cases. Epitheliod cells grow slower than other cancer cells, making them easier to treat.
- Sarcomatoid mesothelioma: Sarcomatoid mesothelioma accounts for 10-20% of all cases. Sarcomatoid cells grow and spread faster than epithelioid cells, making them more challenging to treat.
- Biphasic mesothelioma: Biphasic mesothelioma tumors consist of both epithelioid and sarcomatoid cells. Biphasic cells make up 20-30% of cases. Treatment plans for biphasic mesothelioma depend on which cell type dominates the overall tumor.
Knowing which cell type is present allows doctors to create the most effective treatment plan for each individual.
A mesothelioma prognosis is the expected progression of a patient’s cancer. A prognosis allows doctors to outline how far the cancer has already spread, which treatments will be most effective, and how long patients can expect to live. Remember that a prognosis is not a fact. It’s an estimation based on others who have had it. Your situation is completely unique to you.
Many patients with mesothelioma have a poor prognosis due to late discovery and typical patient age. Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer often diagnosed after it has spread through the body, limiting treatment options. There are other factors to consider in a prognosis for mesothelioma.
Factors affecting a mesothelioma prognosis include:
- Cancer stage
- Location of tumor
- Mesothelioma cell type
- Overall health
Mesothelioma Life Expectancy and Survival Potential
The average mesothelioma life expectancy is 12-21 months. The overall 5-year survival rate for mesothelioma (percent of patients still alive after diagnosis) is roughly 10%. However, every patient’s case differs, and some patients have outlived their survival rate by months, years and even decades.
Further, mesothelioma is not always fatal – some people go on to become survivors. You have a better chance of becoming a mesothelioma survivor if diagnosed before the cancer spreads, and you receive treatment from an experienced mesothelioma specialist.
Download our Free 14 Questions to Ask Your Doctor Checklist to ensure you get all the answers you need at your appointment.
Treatment Options for Mesothelioma
The most common mesothelioma treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of the three (multimodal treatment).
Although there is no cure for mesothelioma, top doctors work closely with their patients and healthcare support teams to develop effective, personalized cancer care plans that reduce symptoms and increase survival time.
Learn more about options for mesothelioma cancer treatment below.
Surgery for mesothelioma aims to remove tumors and any surrounding tissue and organs affected by the cancer.
The primary surgery options for pleural mesothelioma include:
The most common surgery for peritoneal mesothelioma is cytoreduction with hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC).
Chemotherapy is commonly used alongside surgery to kill cancer cells and help patients live longer.
Mesothelioma patients often receive chemotherapy in cycles over several weeks or months. Chemotherapy treatment for mesothelioma has advanced rapidly in the past decade, with new therapies arriving after successful clinical trials.
Mesothelioma radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation beams to shrink cancerous tumors.
Oncologists use radiation treatment since it has fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy in some cases. It’s helpful if the cancer only affects part of an organ’s lining.
It can also be used as a palliative treatment for late-stage mesothelioma patients.
Speak with our trusted patient advocates to find the best treatment options.
Emerging and New Treatment Options
Patients diagnosed with mesothelioma may be able to participate in a clinical trial. Mesothelioma clinical trials test upcoming treatments to find ways to help patients live longer.
Emerging mesothelioma treatments in clinical trials include:
- Gene therapy
- Photodynamic therapy
One of the most notable new treatment options for mesothelioma combines two immunotherapy drugs: nivolumab (Opdivo®) and ipilimumab (Yervoy®). After being proven effective in treating pleural mesothelioma through trials, the Food and Drug Administration approved this treatment combination for mainstream use in October 2020.
Further, a combination of two other immunotherapy drugs — atezolizumab (Tecentriq®) and bevacizumab (Avastin®) — was recently reported to be helpful for peritoneal mesothelioma.
Another newer therapy called Tumor Treating Fields (TTFields) was also approved for use in treating pleural mesothelioma in 2019. This treatment uses electrical pads that don’t hurt the patient but disrupt the cancer’s ability to spread. It’s currently used alongside chemotherapy.
Patients with mesothelioma can access these newer treatment options and others by receiving treatment at a mesothelioma cancer center.
Top Mesothelioma Doctors
Mesothelioma specialists are doctors with years or even decades of experience diagnosing and treating different types of mesothelioma.
Since mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive disease, seeing a specialist may give you access to better treatment options to improve your prognosis.
Learn more about some renowned mesothelioma doctors below.
Dr. Raja Flores
- Pleural Mesothelioma Specialist
- Mount Sinai Health System
Dr. Taylor Ripley
- Pleural Mesothelioma Specialist
- Mesothelioma Treatment Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston
Dr. James Pingpank
- Peritoneal Mesothelioma Specialist
- UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh
Dr. Hedy Lee Kindler
- Peritoneal Mesothelioma Specialist
- University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center
Our Free Mesothelioma Doctor Match can help you find mesothelioma specialists and cancer centers who can best treat your disease. We consider various factors, including your location, current health, and ability to travel.
Financial Support for Mesothelioma Patients
Mesothelioma treatment is expensive and can possibly lead to years of medical bills. This financial element can add significant stress when patients need to focus on healing and spending time with loved ones.
Fortunately, patients and caregivers affected by this cancer have several options to help them cover their medical costs and keep their families financially secure.
Financial support options for mesothelioma include:
- Asbestos trust funds
- Mesothelioma lawsuits
- Medicare or Medicaid
- Private insurance
- VA benefits
For decades, blue-collar workers, members of the U.S. military, and their loved ones may have been exposed to toxic asbestos fibers. These victims and families can seek compensation for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
Mesothelioma patients and their families can receive compensation through a legal verdict or settlement from a lawsuit. Those affected by mesothelioma can also pursue VA benefits (if the patient is a veteran) and asbestos trust fund claims with the help of a mesothelioma lawyer.
You may be able to file a lawsuit and receive the financial support you need. Speak with a top mesothelioma and asbestos lawyer to ensure you get the most possible. Start now with a free case review.
Who Is at Risk of Developing Mesothelioma?
Anyone who has come into contact with asbestos may develop mesothelioma cancer, regardless of when, where, or how often they were exposed. However, certain groups may have higher chances of getting mesothelioma from asbestos exposure. This includes people who had a high risk of workplace asbestos exposure.
Many industrial occupations put workers in direct contact with asbestos. High-risk jobs include construction work, shipbuilding, and automobile repair.
U.S. Military Veterans
Asbestos was used widely by each branch of the military. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), U.S. military veterans account for one out of every three people diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Asbestos fibers often clung to workers’ uniforms, hair, and tools. Because of this, asbestos fibers could be taken back to the workers’ homes, putting their family members at risk of exposure and mesothelioma later in life.
Were you or a loved one exposed to asbestos? Find the information you need in our Free Mesothelioma Guide — shipped right to your door.
Life with mesothelioma can be a challenge, but that’s why we’re here to walk with you through every step of the process. It’s our passion to serve you and your family, and we have dedicated Patient Advocates ready to show you that you’re not alone. We’ll help you make decisions and give you plenty of free resources.
No matter where you are in the process, we’re ready to meet you there.
Start now by requesting our Free Mesothelioma Care Package, which includes:
- A 90+ page guidebook
- Customized inserts for your diagnosis
- Top-rated cancer treatment planner
Frequently Asked Questions About Mesothelioma
What is the main cause of mesothelioma?
Currently, the only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure.
Stray asbestos fibers can be inhaled or swallowed and cling to the linings of organs. Fibers will irritate the organ linings and form tumors, but symptoms do not show for 10-50 years.
What are the warning signs of mesothelioma?
In the early stages of mesothelioma, patients may not have any symptoms. Signs of pleural mesothelioma usually appear once fluid begins to build up in the lining of the lungs.
Pleural mesothelioma symptoms may include:
- Chest pain
- Chronic cough
- Shortness of breath
Similarly, as fluid accumulates in the abdomen, patients with peritoneal mesothelioma may start to experience symptoms.
Peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Weight loss
What is the life expectancy of a person with mesothelioma?
The average life expectancy for a person diagnosed with mesothelioma is 12-21 months. It is important to note every patient is different, though, so some may have more or less time to live.
Patients may be able to improve their prognosis and extend their life expectancy by undergoing treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. These treatments can shrink or remove cancer tumors and allow patients to live longer.
Can a chest X-ray show mesothelioma?
Yes, a chest X-ray may reveal certain abnormalities that suggest you might have cancer. These may include thickening of the lung lining, fluid buildup in the chest wall, or possibly cancerous lumps in the chest.
However, a chest X-ray alone cannot confirm a diagnosis — only a biopsy can do that.
Doctors will likely order a biopsy if they think you have mesothelioma based on the results of a chest X-ray.
Can mesothelioma be inherited?
No, mesothelioma cannot be passed down directly from one person to the next.
That said, family members may be at a higher risk of mesothelioma if a loved one worked with or around asbestos due to secondhand exposure.
Workers could bring home asbestos fibers that stuck to their clothing, hair, or skin, putting their spouses, children, and anyone else living in the home in danger of mesothelioma later in life.
Can a lung transplant cure mesothelioma?
No. Even though a lung transplant might help improve a patient’s quality of life, it cannot cure this cancer. The best way to treat mesothelioma is with multimodal therapy — a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
Is mesothelioma always fatal?
No. Although mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer with a poor prognosis, many people can beat the odds and achieve survivorship. In some cases, mesothelioma patients who were given a poor prognosis wound up living for decades.
Can mesothelioma go into remission?
Yes. It is possible for mesothelioma cancer to go into remission, according to the ACS. Aggressive surgeries like an EPP, P/D, or cytoreduction with HIPEC are designed to prevent mesothelioma tumors from growing or spreading for months or even years.
Various maintenance therapies are also designed to keep a patient’s mesothelioma stable and under control.
How much compensation can mesothelioma victims get?
Patients who secure legal compensation are awarded an average of between $1 million and $1.4 million from mesothelioma settlements.
You could also end up with more or less money if your legal case goes to trial. Mesothelioma trial verdicts award between $5 and $11.4 million on average if you win. However, you could get nothing if you lose.
The amount you might receive depends on multiple factors, including asbestos exposure history if you pursue additional claims through trust funds or the VA, and more.