Malignant mesothelioma is a rare cancer caused by asbestos exposure that most commonly develops within the lining of the lungs or abdomen. Patients typically report flu-like symptoms and fluid buildup. The average prognosis for mesothelioma is 12-21 months with treatment. Seeing a mesothelioma specialist is crucial so you can receive a custom treatment plan and potentially improve your prognosis.

Fact-Checked and Medically Reviewed By: Dr. Mark Levin

What Is Mesothelioma?

Malignant mesothelioma is a rare cancer that grows in the protective linings that cover various organs called the mesothelium. It’s important to note that mesothelioma is not a form of lung cancer.  Mesothelioma is a unique disease that most commonly develops in the lining of the lungs (pleura) or abdomen (peritoneum). In isolated cases, mesothelioma tumors can form in the linings of the heart (pericardium) or testes (tunica vaginalis).

Quick Facts
  • Around 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year.
  • The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos.
  • Veterans make up 30% of all mesothelioma cases.
  • Patients may qualify for financial compensation averaging $1-1.4 million.

Were you or a loved one exposed to asbestos? Find the information you need in our Free Mesothelioma Guide — shipped overnight to your door.

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Causes of Malignant Mesothelioma

Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma.

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 Cancer

  1. Exposure – When asbestos products are disturbed, the fibers may be inhaled or ingested.
  2. Buildup – The asbestos fibers may then become lodged into the linings of certain tissues.
  3. Damage – Once the fibers become stuck, they harm healthy tissue for decades.
  4. Cancer – In some cases, this tissue damage causes the formation of cancerous tumors.

Researchers are still trying to determine why some people who are exposed to asbestos develop mesothelioma while others develop different asbestos-related diseases such as lung cancer.

Types of Mesothelioma

There are four types of mesothelioma, and each type affects a different location in the body.

Pleural Mesothelioma

Pleural Mesothelioma
Illustration of pleural mesothelioma

Malignant pleural mesothelioma develops in the protective tissue that covers the chest cavity and lungs (pleura). This makes it different from lung cancer, which forms within the lung space.

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 this cancer because asbestos fibers are most easily inhaled into the chest and lungs.

Pleural mesothelioma is the only form of the disease with an official staging system. There are four mesothelioma stages in the Tumor Node Metastasis (TNM) staging system.

Cancer hasn’t spread far in the first two stages and is often treatable. However, most mesothelioma patients get diagnosed in the later stages (3 and 4) when tumors have spread to distant areas of the body. Treatments may still be available in the later stages, including options to ease discomfort.

Treatment can greatly increase your chances of prolonged survival and even mesothelioma remission. In addition to surgery, other options such as chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy can help slow the disease significantly.

Get your Free Mesothelioma Guide to learn more about each type and stage of mesothelioma — and what therapies are available to help you or a loved one fight this cancer.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma

Peritoneal Mesothelioma
Illustration of peritoneal mesothelioma

This type of mesothelioma develops in the protective lining of the abdomen (peritoneum). 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.

According to leading medical experts, this type of mesothelioma has the best treatment success rate and the highest survival rates.

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

Pericardial mesothelioma forms in the tissue around the heart (pericardium) and accounts for less than 1% of all mesothelioma cases. It has a very poor prognosis, with patients living for 2-6 months on average after diagnosis.

Testicular Mesothelioma

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 prognosis for testicular mesothelioma 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.

*Located in lining of the lungs
Stage 1

  • The cancer has not yet spread beyond its origin
  • The average life expectancy is about 21 months
  • Therapies may increase survival time by several months or years

Learn More About Stage 1

Stage 2

  • The cancer has spread slightly, possibly into nearby lymph nodes
  • The average life expectancy is about 19 months
  • Patients still have many medical options to extend survival

Learn More About Stage 2

Stage 3

  • Mesothelioma has spread into nearby tissues or lymph nodes
  • The average life expectancy is around 16 months
  • Therapies focus on slowing disease spread and managing pain

Learn More About Stage 3

Stage 4

  • The cancer has invaded sites in distant areas of the body
  • The average life expectancy is about 12 months
  • Patients undergo palliative (pain-relieving) therapies

Learn More About Stage 4

Get your Free Mesothelioma Guide to learn more about stages, life expectancy, and treatment options.

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Mesothelioma Symptoms

Mesothelioma cancer displays distinct symptoms depending on where the tumors first formed. That said, some general mesothelioma symptoms are common among most patients.

Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

Common signs include:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty eating or breathing
  • Fluid buildup in the lungs (pleural effusion)
  • Persistent cough
  • Night sweats

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms

Common signs include:

  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea and/or constipation
  • Fluid buildup in the abdomen (ascites)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss

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 pain and improve their quality of life. This mode of therapy is commonly available as part of end-of-life care plans.

Mesothelioma 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 like pneumonia or lung cancer.

While imaging scans are important, doctors cannot use them exclusively to diagnose mesothelioma.

3. Biopsy

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. The tissue sample is then studied under a microscope to see if cancer cells are present.

Misdiagnosis & Second Opinions

Unfortunately, since it is so rare, mesothelioma can often be misdiagnosed as lung cancer or 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: This is the most common cell type, accounting for 70% of all cases. Epithelioid cells grow slower than other cancer cells, making them easier to treat.
  • Sarcomatoid mesothelioma: This cell type accounts for 10-20% of all cases. Sarcomatoid cells grow and spread faster than epithelioid cells, making them more challenging to treat.
  • Biphasic mesothelioma: Tumors with this cell type 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.

Mesothelioma Prognosis

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 therapies and procedures 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

Life Expectancy and Survival Rate

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.

Treatment Options for Mesothelioma

The most common mesothelioma treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of the three (multimodal therapy).

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 discomfort and increase survival time.

Learn more about treatment options for mesothelioma below.


Surgery for mesothelioma aims to remove tumors and any surrounding tissue 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).

To read more about each of these surgical procedures, get our Free Mesothelioma Guide shipped to you overnight.

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Chemotherapy is commonly used alongside surgery to kill cancer cells and help patients live longer.

Patients often receive chemotherapy in cycles over several weeks or months. Chemotherapy for mesothelioma has advanced rapidly in the past decade, with new therapies arriving after successful clinical trials.

Radiation Therapy

Mesothelioma radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation beams to shrink cancerous tumors.

Oncologists use radiation therapy 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 therapy for late-stage mesothelioma.

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Clinical Trials and Emerging Treatments

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 therapies being tested in clinical trials include:

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, clinical trials testing a combination of two other drugs — atezolizumab (Tecentriq®) and bevacizumab (Avastin®) — have shown that immunotherapy may also 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 therapy uses electrical pads that don’t hurt the patient but disrupt the cancer’s ability to spread. It’s currently used alongside chemotherapy.

Patients can access emerging therapies by enrolling in clinical trials 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 such a rare disease, seeing a specialist may give you access to better treatment options to improve your prognosis.

Learn more about some renowned mesothelioma doctors below.

We can connect you with specialists and cancer centers that can best treat your type and stage of mesothelioma. Use our Free Doctor Match to get started.

Financial Support for Patients

Treating mesothelioma 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 compensation options to help them cover their medical costs and keep their families financially secure.

Financial support options for mesothelioma include:

Dennis Testimonial Video Thumbnail

Mesothelioma victim Dennis talks about his journey from diagnosis to filing an asbestos claim. Call us today at (866) 608-8933 to see if you're eligible for financial assistance. 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.

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, lung cancer, and other asbestos-related diseases.

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.

Did You Know?

You may be able to file a lawsuit and receive the financial support you need to cover treatment and other expenses. 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, 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.

Industrial Workers

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), military veterans account for one out of every three people diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Loved Ones

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.

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Get Help for Yourself or a Loved One

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 by requesting our Free Mesothelioma Guide today.

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 warning signs 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 warning signs may include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Weight loss

What is the life expectancy 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 span 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 tissue 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 cancer fatal?

Yes, in most cases However, there are survivors who have beat the odds. In some cases, patients who were given a poor prognosis wound up living for decades after being diagnosed.

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.

Reviewed by:Dr. Mark Levin

Certified Oncologist and Hematologist

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Mark Levin, MD has over 30 years of experience in academic and community hematology and oncology. In addition to serving as Chief or Director at four different teaching institutions throughout his life, he is also still a practicing clinician, has taught and designed formal education programs, and has authored numerous publications in various fields related to hematology and oncology.

Dr. Mark Levin is an independently paid medical reviewer.

  • Board Certified Oncologist
  • 30+ Years Experience
  • Published Medical Author
Written by:

Lead Editor

Laura Wright is a journalist and content strategist with more than 15 years of professional experience. She attended college at the University of Florida, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2008. Her writing has been featured in The Gainesville Sun and other regional publications throughout Florida.

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