What Is Mesothelioma?

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Mesothelioma is a malignant tumor that is caused by inhaled asbestos fibers and forms in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. Symptoms can include shortness of breath and chest pain. The life expectancy for most mesothelioma patients is approximately 12 months after diagnosis. Treatment may improve prognosis and can include surgery, chemotherapy or radiation.
Diagnosed with mesothelioma? Get a free guide on what to do next.

What Is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is an incurable, asbestos-related cancer that typically affects the lining of the lungs. However, mesothelioma tumors can develop in the lining of the abdominal cavity or heart. 

Mesothelioma developing in the pleura, peritoneum and pericardium

Mesothelioma tumors develop in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart.

Mesothelioma Symptoms 

Symptoms of mesothelioma appear when tumors spread, grow and press against the chest wall and the abdominal cavity. Chest pain and shortness of breath are the most common symptoms.


  • Dry coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Respiratory complications
  • Pain in the chest or abdomen
  • Fever or night sweats
  • Pleural effusion (fluid around the lungs)
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness in the muscles

Read More About Mesothelioma Symptoms

Diagnosing Mesothelioma

A biopsy is the only mesothelioma test that confirms a diagnosis. Doctors may use additional diagnostic procedures. An early mesothelioma diagnosis may increase a patient’s eligibility for all treatment options.
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Imaging Scans

Most people initially undergo a basic chest X-ray to check for any abnormalities. If an abnormal growth is detected, doctors will recommend a more detailed imaging scan such as a PET scan, CT scan or MRI.
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If cancer is suspected, doctors will recommend taking a sample of tissue, also knowns as a biopsy. Doctors use this tissue sample to definitively confirm the presence of malignant mesothelioma cells.
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Blood Tests

Blood tests may be used but do not confirm the presence of mesothelioma. Researchers are evaluating if blood tests can aid in the early diagnosis of at-risk former asbestos workers.
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Doctors use at least five staging systems to stage pleural mesothelioma. The IMIG staging system is preferred. No universal staging system exists for the other mesothelioma types.

Mesothelioma Causes

Asbestos exposure is the primary cause of mesothelioma. People exposed to asbestos at home, work or in the military have a higher risk of developing the disease.


  1. Person inhaling asbestos fibers
    A person inhales or swallows microscopic airborne asbestos fibers.
  2. Asbestos fibers entering the lungs
    The asbestos fibers become lodged in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart.
  3. Asbestos fibers lodged in mesothelium causing inflammation
    Embedded fibers damage mesothelial cells and cause inflammation.
  4. Mesothelioma tumor forming in mesothelium
    Over time, tumors form on the damaged mesothelium, leading to mesothelioma.

People Most at Risk of Developing Mesothelioma

People most at risk of developing mesothelioma handled asbestos for a prolonged period of time or were exposed to large amounts of asbestos as part of their career.
Secondhand exposure is also common, especially among the spouses and children of people who worked with asbestos.
Mesothelioma Nutrition Guide

Free Mesothelioma Nutrition Guide

Eating right and balancing your diet while undergoing mesothelioma treatment can help ease your symptoms.


  • Blue-Collar Workers

    Firefighters, construction workers, power plant workers, shipyard workers and others are among these types of workers.
  • Veterans

    U.S. Navy veterans are most at risk. Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard veterans also face health risks.
  • Family Members

    Spouses, children and others who lived with a person who was regularly exposed to asbestos fibers are at risk.