Mesothelioma is a deadly and incurable cancer caused by inhaled asbestos fibers. Most cases develop in the lining of the lungs or abdomen. Mesothelioma has a poor prognosis and an average life expectancy of about 12-21 months after diagnosis. However, treatments, including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, may help improve prognosis.

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What Is Mesothelioma?

Malignant mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that develops in the mesothelium, the protective lining that covers various organs.

This cancer type most commonly affects 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).

Each year, only around 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Video Summary: Dennis, a victim of mesothelioma, talks about his journey from diagnosis to filing an asbestos claim. View Transcript.

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.

Mesothelioma Causes

The only proven cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos.

From the 1930s to the early 1980s, asbestos was widely used in blue-collar industries and the military. 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.

How Asbestos Causes Mesothelioma

1. Exposure

1. Exposure

When asbestos products are disturbed, the fibers may be inhaled or ingested.

2. Buildup

2. Buildup

The asbestos fibers may then become lodged into various organ linings.

3. Damage

3. Damage

Once the fibers become stuck, they damage healthy tissue.

4. Cancer

4. Cancer

In some cases, this tissue damage causes cancerous tumors to form.

Other Causes of Mesothelioma

Not all mesothelioma cases have been traced back to asbestos exposure. While there may be other, far less common mesothelioma causes, studies are limited and largely inconclusive.

It is also possible that some individuals were exposed to asbestos unknowingly.

Who Is at Risk for Mesothelioma?

Anyone who has come into contact with asbestos may develop mesothelioma. However, some people are at a greater risk than others.

At Risk: Industrial Workers

Many industrial and blue-collar occupations put workers in direct contact with asbestos. High-risk jobs for asbestos exposure include construction work, firefighting, shipbuilding, and automobile repair.

Many of these occupations exposed workers to asbestos on a daily basis. However, the United States Department of Labor emphasizes that there is no “safe” level of asbestos exposure.

At Risk: Veterans

Asbestos was used widely by each branch of the military, increasing the link between mesothelioma and veterans.

Did You Know?

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 1 out of every 3 people diagnosed with mesothelioma is a veteran.

Navy veterans have the highest risk of developing mesothelioma because asbestos-containing products were used heavily throughout Navy ships.

At Risk: Family and Loved Ones

While the families and loved ones of industrial workers and veterans didn’t usually work with asbestos-containing products, they may have suffered secondhand exposure.

Asbestos is notorious for attaching to workers’ uniforms, hair, and tools. Workers could then bring asbestos fibers into their homes without realizing it, exposing other family members.

There have been many instances of women developing mesothelioma after washing their husband’s or father’s clothes.

Mesothelioma Symptoms

The different types of mesothelioma have unique symptoms depending on where in the body the cancer first develops. That said, some mesothelioma symptoms are common among most patients.

Common symptoms of mesothelioma include:

  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Night sweats
  • Pleural effusions (fluid in the lungs) or ascites (fluid in the abdomen)
  • Rib pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Shoulder pain
  • Upper back pain

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.

As the cancer progresses, tumors inhibit the function of various organs, making symptoms more noticeable and uncomfortable. For example, the development of pleural mesothelioma tumors causes the pleura to thicken, stopping the lungs from expanding fully and preventing patients from being able to take a deep breath.

Learn more about the signs and symptoms of mesothelioma in our free Mesothelioma Justice Guide.

Types of Mesothelioma

There are 4 types of mesothelioma, each affecting a different area in the body.

Pleural Mesothelioma

Pleural mesothelioma affects the protective lining that covers the chest cavity and lungs (pleura). It is the most common type of mesothelioma, accounting for roughly 80% of all cases, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

There are 4 stages of pleural mesothelioma under the Tumor Node Metastasis (TNM) staging system.

The stages of mesothelioma serve as a general description of how far the cancer has spread throughout the body. This information helps determine a patient’s treatment options and overall survival time.

Stage 1
  • The earliest stage, during which the cancer has not spread beyond the layers of the pleura.
  • The average life expectancy for stage 1 malignant pleural mesothelioma is about 21 months.
  • Patients have treatment options that may improve life expectancy by several months or years.
Located in lining of the lungs
Stage 1 Mesothelioma
Stage 2
  • The cancer has metastasized slightly outside the pleura and possibly into nearby lymph nodes.
  • The average life expectancy for stage 2 mesothelioma is about 19 months.
  • Patients still have many treatment options to increase life expectancy.
Stage 2 Mesothelioma
Stage 3
  • Mesothelioma has metastasized into nearby tissues, organs, or lymph nodes.
  • The average life expectancy for stage mesothelioma is around 16 months.
  • Most stage 3 mesothelioma patients are no longer eligible for curative surgeries, but can still undergo treatments to help slow disease spread and manage symptoms.
Stage 3 Mesothelioma
Stage 4
  • The cancer has invaded distant sites like the peritoneum, pericardium, and/or the other side of the chest. It may also spread to distant areas of the body.
  • The average life expectancy for stage 4 mesothelioma is about 12 months.
  • Treatments for stage 4 mesothelioma are focused on finding the most effective ways to improve the patient’s quality of life.
Stage 4 Mesothelioma

Peritoneal Mesothelioma

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 5 years after diagnosis if they receive curative treatment.

Rare Mesothelioma Types

Pericardial Mesothelioma

Pericardial mesothelioma forms in the lining surrounding the heart (pericardium) and accounts for less than 1% of all cases of mesothelioma. It has an incredibly low life expectancy, with patients living a median of only 6 months after diagnosis.

Testicular Mesothelioma

Testicular mesothelioma develops in the lining of the testes (tunica vaginalis). This cancer is extremely rare, with only around 100 cases ever reported. The median survival time of testicular mesothelioma patients after diagnosis is 23 months.

Mesothelioma Diagnosis

Getting an accurate mesothelioma diagnosis from a mesothelioma specialist is essential to receiving effective treatment.

Doctors usually take multiple steps to diagnose mesothelioma, however, a biopsy is needed to confirm a diagnosis.

Patient Examination

Patients who display symptoms of mesothelioma are encouraged to see their doctor to get a physical examination. 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

Imaging scans allow physicians to determine whether there are any abnormalities in a patient’s body. Doctors often require several scans — including X-rays, computed tomography scans (CT scans), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) — to rule out other illnesses.

While imaging scans are valuable, they cannot be used exclusively to diagnose mesothelioma.

Biopsy of Mesothelioma Tumor

If imaging scans reveal an existing tumor or mass in the chest or abdomen, doctors will order a biopsy.

During a biopsy, doctors remove a tissue sample from the tumor, 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 other cancers

A misdiagnosis may lead to months of wasted time and thousands of wasted dollars. This is why it’s important for patients to get a second opinion from a mesothelioma specialist.

Mesothelioma Prognosis

Mesothelioma prognosis describes the expected progression of a patient’s cancer, affecting their treatment options and median survival. Because mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer often diagnosed in later stages, most patients receive a poor prognosis.

The table below outlines the average life expectancy for each mesothelioma type.

Mesothelioma TypeLife Expectancy
Pleural Mesothelioma10-21 months
Peritoneal Mesothelioma28-35 months
Pericardial Mesothelioma5-6 months
Testicular Mesothelioma23 months

A patient’s prognosis can be influenced by several factors including their mesothelioma type, cell type, cancer stage, and overall health. For example, patients in poor health, or those with advanced cancer, tend to have shorter life expectancies.

That said, it is important to remember that a mesothelioma prognosis is not set in stone. The most effective way to extend patient survival is through early detection and prompt treatment.

Mesothelioma Cell Types

Mesothelioma tumors are made up of 3 main types of cells. Doctors use mesothelioma cell types to help determine a patient’s overall disease outlook and treatment plan.


The most common mesothelioma cell type, making up around 60% of tumors, 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 mesothelioma tumors. These cells grow and spread much faster than epithelioid cells, making them harder to treat.


Biphasic mesothelioma consists of both epithelioid and sarcomatoid cells. This happens in about 20%-30% of cases. Treatment depends on which cell type occurs more within a tumor.

Mesothelioma Treatment

The standard treatment options for mesothelioma are surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of the three (multimodal treatment).

Although there is no true cure for mesothelioma, patients can work with their health care team to develop an effective, personalized treatment plan to help reduce symptoms and increase their survival time.

“What we are trying to do with mesothelioma is move to precision medicine and tailor therapy based on both the individual patient’s characteristics and the individual tumor characteristics.”

– Dr. Raphael Bueno, Pleural Mesothelioma Specialist


Surgery for mesothelioma involves 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 are:

Chemotherapy & Radiation

Mesothelioma chemotherapy is commonly used alongside surgery to kill remaining cancer cells and achieve the best curative results.

Standard chemotherapy is administered to mesothelioma patients in cycles over the course of several weeks or months.

During radiation therapy for mesothelioma, doctors use high-energy radiation beams to shrink the cancerous tumors. Radiation has few side effects compared to chemotherapy and is often used as palliative treatment for late-stage mesothelioma patients.

Other Mesothelioma Treatment Options

Palliative Care

The spread of mesothelioma tumors throughout a patient’s body can gravely decrease their quality of life during the advanced stages of their cancer. Doctors prescribe palliative treatments as a form of end-of-life care to help reduce pain and discomfort.

One type of palliative care is low-risk surgery, such as a thoracentesis for pleural mesothelioma or a paracentesis for peritoneal mesothelioma.

Clinical Trials

Mesothelioma clinical trials offer hope to patients without standard treatment options and contribute vital information to future mesothelioma treatment efforts.

Emerging treatments being studied in clinical trials include:

  • Anti-angiogenesis
  • Chemotherapy advancements
  • Gene therapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Photodynamic therapy

Patients with mesothelioma may be able to access these novel treatment options by working with a mesothelioma doctor at a specialized cancer center.

Accessing Mesothelioma Treatment

Finding a specialist is an essential part of mesothelioma cancer treatment. Oncologists, pathologists, surgeons, and other medical doctors who specialize in mesothelioma research and treatment provide patients with the best chance at an effective treatment plan.

Pleural Mesothelioma Doctors

Visit the UCLA Health website to learn more about Dr. Robert Cameron.
The Mesothelioma Cancer Network has no affiliation with and is not endorsed or sponsored by Dr. Robert B. Cameron. The contact information above is listed for informational purposes only. You have the right to contact Dr. Cameron directly.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Doctors

Financial Support for Mesothelioma Victims

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 families affected by this cancer have several options to help them cover their medical costs.

Financial support options for mesothelioma include:

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.

For help connecting with a mesothelioma lawyer near you, get a free legal case review.

Mesothelioma Support Team
Reviewed by:Dr. Mark Levin

Certified Oncologist and Hematologist

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Mark Levin, MD has nearly 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.

Stephanie KiddWritten by:


Stephanie Kidd grew up in a family of civil servants, blue-collar workers, and medical caregivers. Upon graduating Summa Cum Laude from Stetson University, she began her career specializing in worker safety regulations and communications. Now, a proud member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) and Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Cancer Network, Stephanie serves as a voice for mesothelioma victims and their families.

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