Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, heart, or abdomen.

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Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer caused primarily by the inhalation of asbestos fibers. The disease attacks the mesothelium, a protective, two-layered membrane that covers the internal organs of the body including the lungs, heart and abdominal organs.

Mesothelioma takes anywhere from 20 to 50 years to develop, which is why it is more commonly diagnosed in older individuals. The disease most often affects men between the ages of 50 and 70 who were employed in an asbestos-laden environment before asbesto regulations were imposed in the late 1970s. Occupations most associated with mesothelioma are shipyard workers, electricians, plumbers, construction industry workers, pipefitters, boilermakers, and anyone subject to heavy exposure to dangerous airborne asbestos fibers.

Though still significantly rarer than other cancers, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed each year in the United States. Other countries, notably the United Kingdom and Australia, report a much higher incidence of the disease.

Mesothelioma Types

There are three major types of mesothelioma.

  • Pleural mesothelioma, the most common type, develops in the lining of the lungs.
  • Peritoneal mesothelioma affects the peritoneum, the lining of the abdomen.
  • Pericardial mesothelioma, the rarest major form of the disease, affects the pericardium, the lining of the heart.


The only conclusive cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos, a fibrous mineral used in a variety of industrial products throughout the 20th century. Asbestos fibers are highly friable, meaning they become airborne easily if disturbed. Once inhaled, the fibers lodge themselves in a person’s mesothelial tissue, causing inflammation that eventually turns to tumors. While not directly a cause of the disease, smoking also greatly increases a person’s chances of contracting the disease if they’ve been exposed to asbestos. Learn more »

Signs and Symptoms

Mesothelioma generally doesn’t start showing symptoms until the cancer is in its advanced stages. Early symptoms may be easily confused with more common, less dangerous illnesses, compounding the difficulty of diagnosis. As the tumors spread, they can cause a great deal of pain and discomfort. Treatments in the later stages of the disease tend to focus on easing pain and making the patient as comfortable as possible. Learn more »

Common Symptoms of Mesothelioma

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fluid in the chest, lungs, or abdomen
  • Coughing
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Husky voice
  • Difficulty swallowing


Because of its long latency period and lack of symptoms in its early stages, most cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in the advanced stages of the disease. Typically, symptoms like chronic coughing and chest pain will bring a patient to the doctor. A series of tests, including X-rays, CT scans, MRI, and biopsy, will be administered if the doctor suspects mesothelioma. Research into genetic markers and other early warning signs is ongoing, giving hope that earlier diagnoses may be possible in the future. Learn more »

Mesothelioma Treatment

Mesothelioma treatment usually involves some combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

Mesothelioma Treatment
Surgery Younger, healthier patients and those in the early stages of the disease may be eligible for surgery to remove cancerous tissue.
Radiation This therapy is a localized treatment that bombards cancer cells with radiation, destroying them at a molecular level and preventing them from reproducing.
Chemotherapy Chemotherapy drugs can help slow the spread of mesothelioma tumors and reduce the cancer’s side effects.

Other Resources

Emerging treatment and clinical trials Researchers on the hunt for a cure are continually developing new ways to treat mesothelioma. Find out more about emerging treatments and how to participate in clinical trials.
Coping A mesothelioma diagnosis can be devastating. Learn how to cope with the changes to your daily life and strain on your mental health.
Legal and financial support If you contracted mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure, you may be eligible for compensation. An experienced mesothelioma attorney can explain your legal rights and help you in this difficult time.
Veterans Veterans of the Navy and other armed forces are at a higher risk of mesothelioma due to the use of asbestos in ships, aircraft and military housing.
Tradesmen Workers in construction and manufacturing industries may have been exposed to asbestos without realizing it. Learn about the occupations at highest risk of mesothelioma.
Family and Caregivers Caring for a loved one with mesothelioma can be stressful and difficult. Resources like support groups and counselling can make things easier.