Fact: 70-80 percent of people with mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos at work

What is Mesothelioma?
Malignant mesothelioma (me-zoe-thee-lee-O-muh) is a type of cancer that occurs in the thin layer of tissue that covers the majority of your internal organs (mesothelium).

Mesothelioma is an aggressive and deadly form of cancer. Mesothelioma treatments are available, but for many people with mesothelioma, a cure is not possible.

Doctors divide mesothelioma into different types based on what part of the mesothelium is affected. Mesothelioma most often affects the tissue that surrounds the lungs (pleura). This type is called pleural mesothelioma. Other, rarer types of mesothelioma affect tissue in the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma), around the heart and around the testicles.

"Peritoneal asbestos cancer is the second most common type of mesothelioma, attacking the thin layer of tissue that surrounds the abdominal organs." Mesothelioma doesn't include a form of noncancerous (benign) tumor that occurs in the chest and is sometimes called benign mesothelioma or solitary fibrous tumor.

Signs and symptoms of mesothelioma vary depending on where the cancer occurs.

Pleural mesothelioma, which affects the tissue that surrounds the lungs, causes signs and symptoms that may include:

  • Chest pain under the rib cage
  • Painful coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unusual lumps of tissue under the skin on your chest
  • Unexplained weight loss

Peritoneal mesothelioma, which occurs in tissue in the abdomen, causes signs and symptoms that may include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Lumps of tissue in the abdomen
  • Unexplained weight loss

Other forms of mesothelioma
Signs and symptoms of other types of mesothelioma are unclear, since these forms of the disease are very rare.

Pericardial mesothelioma, which affects tissue that surrounds the heart, can cause signs and symptoms such as breathing difficulty and chest pains.

Mesothelioma of tunica vaginalis, which affects tissue surrounding the testicles, may be first detected as swelling or a mass on a testicle.

In general, cancer begins when a series of genetic mutations occur within a cell, causing the cell to grow and multiply out of control. It isn't clear what causes the initial genetic mutations that lead to mesothelioma, though researchers have identified factors that may increase the risk. It's likely that cancers form because of an interaction between many factors, such as inherited conditions, your environment, your health conditions and your lifestyle choices.

Other Risk Factors
Apart from risk factors associated with asbestos, exposure to minerals with similar properties to asbestos, a person's age and gender and other elements may increase the likelihood of developing the disease.

Exposure to Mineral Fibers
Exposure to zeolites, a class of fibrous minerals chemically similar to asbestos, may also increase the risk for mesothelioma. While they are not known to be as immediately dangerous as asbestos, zeolites have not been determined to be a completely safe type of mineral either. High rates of mesothelioma in a region of Turkey suggest that those living in that area and others working with a zeolite building material called erionite may be at risk for developing the disease.

Radiation Exposure
Exposure to radiation may increase mesothelioma risk, but evidence is rare and inconsistent. Several studies have shown the risk for mesothelioma slightly increases after a person receives radiation therapy as a treatment for other cancers.

Polio Vaccines and Simian Virus 40
Some studies suggest people who received a polio vaccine between 1955 and 1963 may have an increased risk of developing mesothelioma. Tens of millions of polio vaccines during that nine-year span were infected by the simian virus 40 (SV40). Although the largest studies did not find a link between the virus and increased mesothelioma risk, the topic remains controversial as studies continue.


Because only a small number of people exposed to asbestos develop mesothelioma, scientists believe genetics can affect a person's risk for the cancer. Researchers have confirmed a mutation in a gene called BAP1 increases the likelihood of developing mesothelioma and melanoma of the eye.

Radiation Exposure
Exposure to radiation may increase mesothelioma risk, but evidence is rare and inconsistent. Several studies have shown the risk for mesothelioma slightly increases after a person receives radiation therapy as a treatment for other cancers.

Age and Gender
Mesothelioma is more commonly diagnosed in men than women, and rarely affects people younger than 45. This is because mesothelioma often takes decades to develop, and men are more likely to work in jobs where asbestos exposure occurs.

The only way to confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis is through a biopsy, which can be an invasive and painful procedure. Therefore, doctors use other diagnostic tools, such as imaging scans and blood tests, to assess the likelihood of a mesothelioma diagnosis before performing a biopsy.

Veterans and Mesothelioma

"The military used asbestos until the late-1970s to make certain materials fireproof and heat-resistant. Asbestos materials weren’t fully replaced until decades later, leaving many veterans at risk for developing mesothelioma later in life. Veterans suffering from mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos during military service are eligible for VA benefits." - Mesothelioma Veterans Center

Treatment for mesothelioma typically involves a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. In cases where standard treatments do not work, mesothelioma patients may also be able to try experimental treatments through clinical trials.

While no cure currently exists, mesothelioma patients can usually improve their prognosis through some form of treatment. Even in cases where improving lifespan is not viable, palliative care and alternative therapies often help reduce pain and suffering from symptoms for many individuals with mesothelioma.

Clinical trials
Clinical trials are studies of new mesothelioma treatment methods. People with mesothelioma may opt for a clinical trial for a chance to try new types of treatment. However, a cure isn't guaranteed.

Carefully consider your treatment options and talk to your doctor about what clinical trials are open to you. Your participation in a clinical trial may help doctors better understand how to treat mesothelioma in the future.

Clinical trials are currently investigating a number of new approaches to mesothelioma treatment, including:

  • Targeted therapy, which involves using drugs that attack specific abnormalities within cancer cells.
  • Biological therapy, which uses your body's immune system to fight cancer.
  • Gene therapy, which involves altering the genes inside the cancer cells in order to stop disease.

Coping and support
A diagnosis of mesothelioma can be devastating not only to you but also to your family and friends. In order to regain a sense of control, try to:

  • Learn enough about mesothelioma to make decisions about your care. Write down questions to ask your doctor. Ask your health care team for information to help you better understand your disease. Good places to start looking for more information include the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society.
  • Surround yourself with a support network. Close friends or family can help you with everyday tasks, such as getting you to appointments or treatment. If you have trouble asking for help, learn to be honest with yourself and accept help when you need it.
  • Seek out other people with cancer. Ask your health care team about cancer support groups in your community. Sometimes there are questions that can only be answered by other people with cancer. Support groups offer a chance to ask these questions and receive support from people who understand your situation. Online support message boards, such as the American Cancer Society's Cancer Survivors Network, can offer similar benefits while allowing you to remain anonymous.
  • Plan ahead. Ask your health care team about advance directives that give your family guidance on your medical wishes in case you can no longer speak for yourself.

Want to learn more?
The following organizations and/or websites offer additional information and education about Mesothelioma. They are listed in Alphabetical order without any preference or prejudice. Listing these organizations is not a recommendation or referral in any regard for seeking treatment or consultation or support for treatment.

American Cancer Society
Cancer Research UK
Mayo Clinic
Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center
Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance
Mesothelioma Fund
Mesothelioma Group
Mesothelioma Guide
​Mesothelioma Help
​Mesothelioma Legal Resource
Mesothelioma Veterans Center

Information on this page taken directly from:
Cancer Research UK
Mayo Clinic
Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance
​Mesothelioma Fund