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What Is Mesothelioma?

By WebMD Connect to Care Staff
Malignant mesothelioma affects the mesothelium, a membrane that covers vital organs, especially the lungs and chest cavity.

Malignant mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer typically caused by exposure to asbestos. It affects the mesothelium, a membrane that covers vital organs, especially the lungs and chest cavity.

Asbestos is a group of minerals that form thin-yet-strong fibers that were predominately used after World War II in construction and manufacturing including in insulation, tiling, roofing and break pads due to its strength and resistance to heat. Unfortunately, exposure to asbestos can lead to a variety of illnesses including mesothelioma, lung cancer, laryngeal cancer and even ovarian cancer.

Here is everything you need to know about mesothelioma.


This rare form of cancer is caused by exposure to asbestos. These tiny fibers can be inhaled or even swallowed. Once inside the body, they can stick to different organs, particularly the lungs, causing irritation while leading to further damage including cancer.

There are certain professions where you face a higher risk of asbestos exposure. Those include:

  • Construction or demolition workers
  • Firefighters
  • Insulators
  • Factory or industrial workers
  • Shipyard workers
  • Power plant workers
  • Mining or milling workers


Unfortunately, there is a lengthy latency period between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma symptoms. The timetable can be anywhere from 10 or 15 years to as great as 40 or 50 years depending on exposure levels and frequency. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average survival after diagnosis is approximately one year.

Symptoms of mesothelioma include:

  • Chest or abdomen pain
  • Dry cough or wheezing
  • Respiratory complications
  • Fluid around the lungs
  • Shortness of breath


Consult your physician should you exhibit any of the aforementioned symptoms. Be honest about any potential exposure to asbestos as these symptoms may commonly be mistaken for another respiratory-related illness. Because mesothelioma typically affects the lungs, chest cavity or abdomen, common tests include X-rays, MRIs or CT scans of the area.

Further testing and analysis will be conducted should the initial exams reveal abnormal results. You will also be referred to an oncologist or surgeon for further examination and treatment.


Treatment of mesothelioma is based on a variety of factors including: stage of cancer, patient's age, current health, and amount of fluid in and around the lungs. There are three main areas of treatment for mesothelioma.

Surgery—If the mesothelioma is in an early stage, surgeons will work to remove the tumor before it grows and spreads. Lung tissue, and part of or the entire lung may also be removed during a surgical procedure.

Chemotherapy—This is the use of chemicals and drugs to try to combat the tumor. The chemicals target the mesothelioma in the hopes of shrinking and/or slowing the growth of the tumor.

Radiation—These high-energy beams can be utilized to kill off remaining cancer cells following surgery. The goal with radiation therapy is to eliminate leftover cells while preventing them from growing and spreading.