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What is mesothelioma cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, between 2,000 and 3,000 people in the United States are diagnosed each year with mesothelioma, a rare and dangerous cancer.

Mesothelioma starts in the mesothelium, which includes:

  • Pleura, the thin layer of tissue that lines the lungs
  • Pericardium, the sac around the heart
  • Peritoneum, the membrane that lines the abdomen

Mesothelioma usually starts in the pleura. This type of mesothelioma also is called malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM).

What causes mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma almost always is caused by past exposure to fibers of asbestos. Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that in the past was used in the construction, automotive, military, marine and manufacturing industries.

When tiny particles of asbestos are made or disturbed, they can float in the air. People can breathe in the asbestos or swallow it. This may lead to serious health conditions such as cancers of the lung, larynx and kidney. It also can cause asbestosis, a non-cancerous, chronic lung disease.

In some people, asbestos fibers cause genetic changes in the pleura, the thin layer of tissue that lines the lungs. These changes may lead to mesothelioma. It can occur 20 to 50 years after a person has come in contact with asbestos.

At Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, mesothelioma is treated with a multidisciplinary approach in which a team of experts including medical, surgical and radiation oncologists work together to develop an individual treatment plan based on each patient’s unique needs.

Learn More About Mesothelioma

There are three types of mesothelioma:

  • Epithelioid: 60 to 70 percent of cases, usually has the best outcome
  • Sarcomatoid: 10 to 15 percent of cases, more aggressive
  • Biphasic or mixed: 10 to 15 percent of cases, extremely aggressive

Anything that increases your chance of getting mesothelioma cancer is a risk factor. The only known risk factor for mesothelioma is contact with asbestos. It is more common in men, mainly those between 45 and 85 years old.

Not everyone with risk factors gets mesothelioma. However, if you have been exposed to asbestos, it’s a good idea to tell your doctor.

Mesothelioma and asbestos exposure

Mesothelioma almost always is caused by past exposure to fibers of asbestos. The best way to prevent mesothelioma is to avoid being near asbestos. If you have been exposed to asbestos, watch for symptoms and speak to your doctor.

Because other diseases can cause similar symptoms, mesothelioma often is not diagnosed until it has spread. It has been commonly called the sudden killer because it can often be misdiagnosed as other diseases. Mesothelioma symptoms vary from person to person and may include:

More common:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest or abdominal pain
  • Fatigue
  • Collapse of lung

Less common:

  • Cough that does not go away
  • Losing a lot of weight without trying
  • Blood in sputum (phlegm) coughed up from the lungs
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Prolonged hoarseness
  • Nausea
  • Low oxygen levels

If you have one or more of these symptoms, it does not mean you have mesothelioma. However, it is important to discuss any possible mesothelioma symptoms with your doctor. They may indicate other health problems.



When we treat mesothelioma, we also focus on lung function and quality of life. To do this, we draw upon mesothelioma treatments that may include specialized, less-invasive surgical methods and highly focused radiation therapy.

Doctors often suggest a clinical trial (research study). This may include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and a targeted agent. If surgery is not possible, some patients may be treated with targeted agents.

Targeted agents are innovative drugs for mesothelioma often tested in experimental treatments and can offer new hope for some patients.

If you have mesothelioma, your doctor will discuss the latest developments in treatment and determine the best treatment options for you. This depends on several things, including:

  • Type of mesothelioma
  • Stage of disease
  • Location of cancer
  • Your age and general health

Your treatment for mesothelioma will be tailored to your needs. Your doctor may suggest one or more of the following therapies to treat the cancer or help relieve symptoms.