What Is Malignant Mesothelioma?
Malignant mesothelioma is a rare cancer that grows in the protective linings covering various organs, called the mesothelium.
Quick Facts on Mesothelioma:
- Only 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
- About 75% of all mesothelioma victims are male
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).
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.
Who Is at Risk of Developing Mesothelioma?
Anyone who has come into contact with asbestos may develop mesothelioma cancer, regardless of how or how often they were exposed. However, certain groups of people 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 VA, U.S. veterans account for one out of every three people diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Loved Ones of Exposed
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.
To get all your mesothelioma questions answered, get your Mesothelioma Guide shipped overnight for free.
Causes of Mesothelioma
The only known mesothelioma cause is exposure to asbestos.
From the 1930s to the early 1980s, blue-collar industries and the military widely used asbestos-based products without knowing the risks.
Corporations that made and sold asbestos-containing products knew their goods could kill people, but they hid the truth, knowing they could make a huge profit selling asbestos products. In turn, many people developed mesothelioma, 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 damage healthy tissue.
- Cancer – In some cases, this tissue damage causes cancerous tumors to form.
As of today, cancer researchers are still studying any risk factors other than asbestos exposure (if anything).
Types of Mesothelioma
There are 4 types of mesothelioma. Each mesothelioma type affects a different location in the body. Mesothelioma symptoms vary by type.
Malignant pleural mesothelioma affects the protective lining that covers the chest cavity and lungs (pleura). According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), 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. The cancer hasn’t spread far and is often treatable in the first two stages. By stages 3 and 4 the cancer has spread through the body, but there may still be treatments available, including options to ease symptoms.
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 for just six 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 ever reported. The median survival time of testicular mesothelioma patients after diagnosis is 23 months.
The Four Stages of Mesothelioma
The stages of pleural mesothelioma 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 cancer displays distinct symptoms depending on where the tumors first formed. That said, there are also some general mesothelioma symptoms that are common among most patients.
Common general 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. In some cases, patients aren’t aware that they’re sick until their cancer is quite advanced.
Thankfully, palliative care can help patients manage their mesothelioma symptoms. 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.
Mesothelioma is often mistaken for other types of cancers and illnesses. 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 a physical examination and ending with a biopsy. A biopsy is the collection of tissue 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 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 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 sample from the tumor during a biopsy, either through surgery or by 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, mesothelioma cancer can often be misdiagnosed as a more common illness such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and more since it is so rare. A mesothelioma misdiagnosis can greatly derail the process of getting proper treatment to manage your condition.
No matter the diagnosis, it’s crucial for patients to get a second opinion from a mesothelioma specialist.
Mesothelioma Cell Types
As part of a biopsy, specialists analyze mesothelioma tumors down to the individual cell. There are three mesothelioma cell types, and each can play a role in 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. These cells grow slower than other cancer cells, making them easier to treat.
- Sarcomatoid mesothelioma: 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: Biphasic mesothelioma consists of both epithelioid and sarcomatoid cells. Treatment depends on which cell type dominates the overall tumor.
Defining a cell type helps 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.
Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer often diagnosed after it has spread through the body, which leaves many patients with a poor prognosis.
Factors affecting a mesothelioma prognosis include:
- Cancer stage
- Location of tumor
- Mesothelioma cell type
- Overall health
The average mesothelioma life expectancy is 12-21 months. It is important to remember the estimated life expectancy of a person with mesothelioma is not guaranteed since every case is different.
Mesothelioma is not always fatal – there are many people who go on to become survivors. Your best chance to improve your survival rate and become a mesothelioma survivor is through early detection and prompt treatment.
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, patients can work with their health care team to develop an effective, personalized cancer care plan to reduce symptoms and increase their survival time.
Learn more about options for mesothelioma cancer treatment below.
Surgery for mesothelioma aims to remove tumors and any surrounding tissue and organs (either partially or fully) to stop the spread of cancer.
The most common surgical option for peritoneal mesothelioma is cytoreduction with hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC).
Mesothelioma chemotherapy is commonly used alongside surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells to help patients live longer.
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 uses high-energy radiation beams to shrink cancerous tumors.
Oncologists use radiation treatment since it has fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy. It’s very helpful if the cancer has affected only part of an organ’s lining.
It can also be used as a palliative treatment for late-stage mesothelioma patients.
Emerging Treatment Options
Patients diagnosed with mesothelioma may be able to participate in a clinical trial. Mesothelioma clinical trials test upcoming treatments with the hopes of finding 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, this treatment combination was approved for mainstream use by the Food and Drug Administration in October 2020.
Further, a combination of two other immunotherapy drugs — atezolizumab (Tecentriq®) and bevacizumab (bevacizumab) — was recently reported to be helpful for peritoneal mesothelioma.
Patients with mesothelioma may access these novel treatment options and others by working with a mesothelioma cancer center.
Top Mesothelioma Doctors
Mesothelioma specialists have years of experience in diagnosing and treating different types of mesothelioma.
Since mesothelioma is such a rare and aggressive disease, seeing a specialist may give you access to better treatment options that can improve your prognosis.
Learn more about some renowned mesothelioma doctors below.
Dr. Avi Lebenthal
- Pleural Mesothelioma Specialist
- VA Boston Healthcare System in Boston
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 in Chicago
Use our Mesothelioma Specialist Match Program to find a mesothelioma doctor near you.
Financial Support for Mesothelioma Patients
Mesothelioma treatment can lead to years of medical bills, adding significant 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:
For decades, blue-collar workers, members of the U.S. military, and their loved ones may have been exposed to toxic asbestos fibers. Today, these victims and families have the opportunity to pursue compensation for their injuries.
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.
A mesothelioma lawyer can help you understand all of your legal options. Learn if you are eligible to file a lawsuit with an experienced mesothelioma law firm by getting a free case review.
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 ingested and cling to the linings of organs. Fibers will irritate the organ linings and form tumors, but symptoms do not show for 20-50 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, 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.
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.
Patients may be able to improve their prognosis and extend their life expectancy by undergoing treatments aiming to shrink tumors such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.
Can a chest X-ray show mesothelioma?
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 confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis.
Can mesothelioma be inherited?
Mesothelioma cannot be passed down from one person to the next directly.
That said, inherited gene mutations (such as those to the BAP1 gene) cause some people to be more likely to develop mesothelioma in rare cases. However, gene mutations do not always lead to an individual developing mesothelioma.
Today, researchers still continue to study the causes of mesothelioma.
Is mesothelioma always fatal?
No. Although mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer with a poor prognosis, many people are able to 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 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
How much compensation can 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, 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.
To see if you qualify to take legal action, get a free case review today.