What Is Mesothelioma?
Malignant mesothelioma is a rare cancer that grows in the protective linings covering various organs, called the mesothelium.
Mesothelioma most commonly develops in the linings 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). Only around 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year, making it difficult to diagnose due to a lack of experience.
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.
The only proven cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos.
From the 1930s to the early 1980s, blue-collar industries, and the military widely used asbestos. Corporations knew working with this mineral could harm employees, but they hid the truth, knowing they could make a huge profit selling asbestos products during World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam War.
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 damage healthy tissue.
- Cancer – In some cases, this tissue damage causes cancerous tumors to form.
As of today, cancer researchers have not agreed on other causes of mesothelioma beyond asbestos exposure but continue to study the disease for more insight.
Who is at Risk to Develop Mesothelioma?
Anyone who has come into contact with asbestos may develop mesothelioma. However, some people may have higher chances of getting mesothelioma from asbestos exposure.
Many industrial occupations are a risk factor for mesothelioma by putting 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 VA, U.S. Veterans account for one out of every three people diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Family and Loved Ones of Industrial Workers
Asbestos fibers often clung to workers’ uniforms, hair, and tools — only to be brought back into their homes, exposing other family members.
Mesothelioma displays distinct symptoms depending on its location (chest or abdomen). There are some general mesothelioma symptoms common among most patients.
Common general symptoms of malignant mesothelioma include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Loss of appetite
- Night sweats
- Fluid buildup in the chest (pleural effusions)
- Fluid buildup in the abdomen (ascites)
Patients whose cancer has not yet spread usually experience mild and vague symptoms. In some cases, patients aren’t aware that they’re sick until their mesothelioma is quite advanced. Palliative treatment manages mesothelioma symptoms near death to provide comfort to the patient.
Learn more about mesothelioma signs and symptoms in our Free Mesothelioma Cancer Guide.
Types of Mesothelioma
There are 4 types of mesothelioma, each affecting a different location in the body.
Malignant pleural mesothelioma affects the protective lining that covers the chest cavity and lungs (pleura). According to the American Cancer Society, it is the most common type of mesothelioma, accounting for roughly 80% of all cases.
There are 4 stages of pleural mesothelioma under the Tumor Node Metastasis (TNM) staging system.
Peritoneal mesothelioma develops in the lining of the abdomen (peritoneum). It is the second most common form of mesothelioma, affecting around 10% of all patients.
Peritoneal mesothelioma has one of the highest survival rates of any type, with roughly 65% of patients living at least five years after diagnosis if they receive curative treatment.
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 a median of only six months after diagnosis.
Testicular mesothelioma develops in the lining of the testes (tunica vaginalis). This cancer is very uncommon, with only around 100 cases ever reported. The median survival time of testicular mesothelioma patients after diagnosis is 23 months.
The 4 Stages of Mesothelioma
The pleural mesothelioma stages represent a general description of how far the cancer has 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
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
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
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 treatments designed to improve their quality of life
Stage 4 Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma is often mistaken for other illnesses and cancers. Getting an accurate mesothelioma diagnosis from a specialist can improve access to life-saving treatment.
Doctors usually take multiple steps to diagnose mesothelioma, beginning with an examination and leading to a biopsy. A biopsy is the collection of tissue from the mesothelioma tumor and is required to confirm a diagnosis.
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 any.
The doctor may then request blood tests or an imaging scan of the patient’s chest or abdomen.
Imaging scans allow physicians to determine whether there are any abnormalities in a patient’s body. Doctors often require particular imaging tests such as mesothelioma CT (computer tomography) scans, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans, PET (positron emission tomography) scans, and X-rays to rule out other illnesses.
While imaging scans are valuable, doctors cannot use them exclusively to diagnose mesothelioma.
Biopsy of Tumor
Doctors will order a biopsy if imaging scans reveal an existing tumor or mass in the chest or abdomen.
Doctors remove a tissue sample from the tumor during a biopsy, either through surgery or by inserting a special needle into the affected area. This sample is studied under a microscope to see if cancer cells are present.
Can Mesothelioma Be Misdiagnosed?
Yes, mesothelioma can be misdiagnosed for many reasons:
- It is a rare type of cancer, and many doctors have no previous experience with it
- Its symptoms are vague and may resemble other conditions
- It can be hard to distinguish mesothelioma cells from cells of different cancers
Mesothelioma Cell Types
As part of a biopsy, specialists analyze mesothelioma tumors down to the individual cell. Three mesothelioma cell types make up malignant mesothelioma tumors. Each cell type has its qualities, susceptibility to treatment, rate of spread, and more. Defining a cell type allows doctors to create the most effective treatment plan for each individual.
- The most common mesothelioma cell type, making up around 60% of all cases, is epithelioid mesothelioma.
- Epithelial cells divide at a slower rate than the other cell types, making them easier to treat.
- Sarcomatoid mesothelioma accounts for around 20% of all cases.
- These cells grow and spread much faster than epithelioid cells, making them harder to treat.
- Biphasic mesothelioma consists of both epithelioid and sarcomatoid cells, occurring in about 20%-30% of all cases.
- Treatment depends on which cell type dominates the overall tumor.
A Mesothelioma prognosis describes the expected progression of a patient’s cancer, which affects their treatment options and helps consider their survival potential. Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer often diagnosed in later stages after it has already spread through the body, leaving patients with a poor prognosis.
Several factors can influence a mesothelioma patient’s prognosis, including their cancerous location, cell type, cancer stage, and overall health. For example, patients in poor health, or those with advanced cancer, tend to have a shorter mesothelioma life expectancy.
It is important to remember that a mesothelioma prognosis is not guaranteed, and many new treatments have developed over the past decades. The most effective way to extend your survival rate is through early detection and prompt treatment.
Learn more about improving your prognosis in our Free Mesothelioma Cancer Guide.
Mesothelioma Treatment Options
The standard treatment options for mesothelioma are surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of the three (multimodal treatment).
Although there is no actual cure for mesothelioma, patients can work with their health care team to develop an effective, personalized cancer care plan to help reduce symptoms and increase their survival time.
Surgery for mesothelioma involves different ways of removing tumors and the surrounding tissue and organs (either partially or fully) to stop the spread of cancer.
The most common types of mesothelioma surgeries and their corresponding location are:
- Extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP) – Pleural Mesothelioma
- Pleurectomy with decortication (P/D) – Pleural Mesothelioma
- Cytoreduction with hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) – Peritoneal Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma chemotherapy is commonly used alongside surgery to kill remaining cancer cells and achieve the best curative results. Mesothelioma patients 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
During radiation therapy for mesothelioma, doctors use high-energy radiation beams to shrink the cancerous tumors. Oncologists use radiation treatment because it has fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy. It is also used as a palliative treatment for late-stage mesothelioma patients.
Clinical Trials for Mesothelioma
Patients without eligibility for traditional treatments due to stage or health status may participate in a mesothelioma clinical trial. Clinical trials are where all emerging treatments begin and contribute vital information to future mesothelioma treatment efforts.
Emerging treatments in clinical trials include:
Patients with mesothelioma may access these novel treatment options by working with a specialist at a mesothelioma cancer center.
Get Mesothelioma Treatment
Finding a mesothelioma doctor is an essential part of cancer treatment.
Because mesothelioma is so rare, most general practitioners are unfamiliar with diagnosing and treating it. Oncologists, pathologists, surgeons, and other medical doctors specializing in mesothelioma research provide patients with the best chance at an effective treatment plan.
Financial Support for Mesothelioma Patients
Mesothelioma treatment can lead to years of medical bills, adding unneeded stress at a time 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 provide security for their families.
Financial support options for mesothelioma include:
- Asbestos trust funds
- Charities and donations
- Mesothelioma lawsuits
- Medicare or Medicaid
- Private insurance
- VA benefits
For decades, blue-collar workers, members of the U.S. military, and their loved ones were exposed to toxic asbestos fibers. Today, these victims and families have the opportunity to pursue compensation for their injuries.
Through a lawsuit, victims may be awarded a lump sum of compensation through a legal verdict or settlement. About 95% of mesothelioma cases end in a settlement agreement.
Mesothelioma Support Options
Frequently Asked Questions About Mesothelioma
What are the first signs of mesothelioma?
In the early stages of mesothelioma, patients may not present any symptoms.
Signs of pleural mesothelioma usually appear once fluid begins to build up in the lining of the lungs. These symptoms may include chest pain, shortness of breath, and a chronic cough. Similarly, as fluid accumulates in the abdomen, patients with peritoneal mesothelioma may experience weight loss, abdominal pain, and bloating.
How fast does mesothelioma spread?
It generally takes decades for mesothelioma to develop after initial asbestos exposure. However, once a diagnosis is made, the cancer metastasizes (spreads) rapidly.
This is especially true for patients with the sarcomatoid cell type, which spreads more quickly than its epithelioid counterpart. Patients with sarcomatoid mesothelioma have a prognosis of around 6 months, while those with epithelial cells live for 1.5 years on average.
Can a chest X-ray show mesothelioma?
No. Only a biopsy can confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis. That said, a chest X-ray may reveal certain abnormalities that suggest the presence of cancer. These abnormalities may include thickening of the lung lining or fluid buildup in the chest wall.
Can mesothelioma go into remission?
Yes, it is possible for mesothelioma cancer to go into remission, according to the American Cancer Society. Aggressive surgeries like EPP, P/D, or cytoreduction with HIPEC are designed to prevent mesothelioma tumors from growing or spreading for months or even years.
There are also various maintenance therapies designed to keep a patient’s mesothelioma stable and under control.
“At the first sign of tumor recurrence, we are able to utilize one of a number of treatments, such as radiation, chemotherapy, and cryoablation to attack it. As more treatments are developed in the future, we will be able to add these to our arsenal of maintenance therapies.”
– Dr. Robert Cameron, Pleural Mesothelioma Specialist
Can smoking cause mesothelioma?
No. At this time, there is no research that indicates smoking is a cause of mesothelioma.
What is known is that smokers who were exposed to asbestos are 50 to 84 times more likely to be diagnosed with asbestos-related lung cancer, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry. For this reason, people with a known history of asbestos exposure may consider quitting smoking.
Can mesothelioma be inherited?
In rare cases, inherited gene mutations cause some people to be more likely to develop mesothelioma. One such example is the BAP1 gene. Gene mutations do not always lead to this predisposition, however.
How much do mesothelioma victims get?
Mesothelioma patients who secure legal compensation are awarded an average of $1 million in mesothelioma settlements.
This amount is dependent on multiple factors, including asbestos exposure history, the severity of the cancer, and more. You may receive more or less than this amount if you choose to pursue compensation through a lawsuit or asbestos trust fund claim.