Mesothelioma is the signature cancer caused by asbestos exposure. It usually develops in the pleura, the membrane lining around the lungs. Some cases develop in the lining of the abdomen or, very rarely, the heart sac. Mesothelioma is diagnosed in about 2,500 Americans per year.

Causes and Prevention

The vast majority of mesothelioma cases trace back to long-term workplace asbestos exposure.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that American manufacturers used in a variety of products during the 20th century. The mineral is dangerous when people inhale it as dust.

Common Asbestos Exposure Scenarios


Asbestos insulation, cut cross-wise

Installing Asbestos Insulation: Insulators often had to cut asbestos pipe or block insulation to size when installing it, which released toxic dust into the air. The worst exposure occurred with spray-on asbestos products such as ceiling insulation and fireproofing for steel beams.

Cement made with asbestos fibers


Mixing Asbestos Cement: Asbestos fibers were once a common ingredient in cement, especially cement used to build and repair boilers. U.S. Navy sailors who worked in or near boiler rooms often experienced extreme levels of asbestos exposure.

Close-up of asbestos fibers used in cloth

Wearing Asbestos Cloth: Asbestos has the unique ability to be woven into a completely fireproof type of cloth. Many firefighters and workers who used high-temperature equipment were given safety gear that released asbestos dust through regular wear and tear.

Asbestos has been strictly regulated since the 1970. Mesothelioma can be prevented by following proper safety procedures for working around asbestos-containing materials.

However, mesothelioma has a long latency period, taking anywhere between 20 and 60 years to develop after initial asbestos exposure. Cases of mesothelioma diagnosed today are usually the result of exposure that happened before safety procedures were widely implemented.


Mesothelioma usually does not cause noticeable symptoms until it has reached an advanced stage. The symptoms depend on where tumors form in the body, but they usually include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chronic coughing
  • Chest or abdominal pain
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Muscle weakness
  • Fever
  • Night sweats

The pain and breathing difficulty associated with mesothelioma is often caused by a buildup of cancer-related fluid. A buildup of fluid around the lungs is called a pleural effusion, and a buildup of fluid in the abdomen is called ascites.


There are four types of mesothelioma, defined by where in the body the cancer forms:


Types of mesothelioma by location in the body


Pleural mesothelioma accounts for about 75% of cases, with peritoneal mesothelioma making up the majority of remaining cases. Pericardial and testicular mesothelioma are very rare.

There are also three subtypes of mesothelioma, defined by the way the cancer cells form:

Stains of epithelial, biphasic and sarcomatoid mesothelioma cells

Mesothelioma Treatment

Mesothelioma is rare compared to other types of cancer, so patients can benefit the most from going to an experienced mesothelioma specialist.

Treatment Plans

For early-stage mesothelioma patients in otherwise strong health, doctors usually recommend a combination of surgery and chemotherapy.

However, most mesothelioma patients are not eligible for major surgery because they are diagnosed in a late stage or their health is too delicate. These patients may still benefit from chemotherapy.

Some doctors recommend radiation therapy for pleural mesothelioma, and clinical trials are testing immunotherapy and gene therapy for all types of mesothelioma.

5-Year Survival Rates for Pleural Mesothelioma

  • 18% for patients diagnosed with early-stage cancer
  • 7% for patients diagnosed with late-stage cancer

FDA-Approved Treatments

The chemotherapy treatment approved by the FDA for mesothelioma is a combination of pemetrexed and cisplatin or carboplatin.

The FDA has also approved a wearable device that uses electric fields to inhibit mesothelioma cancer cell growth.

Cost of Treatment

The cost of mesothelioma treatment is comparable to the cost of treatment for advanced lung cancer, which averages between $5,000 and $10,000 per year with insurance.

However, mesothelioma patients often have to travel to a specialized cancer center to find a doctor familiar with their diagnosis, which creates additional expenses.

Information on Mesothelioma Compensation

Many families impacted by a mesothelioma diagnosis are eligible for financial compensation. From the 1930s to the 1970s, asbestos industry executives made a decision to hide information about the dangers of asbestos rather than protecting the health of their employees and customers.

Trust Funds

Since the 1980s, many companies with asbestos liabilities have filed for bankruptcy. As a condition of their reorganization, these companies had to set up special trust funds to ensure compensation is available for people harmed by asbestos exposure.

Asbestos personal injury trusts manage their financial assets independently from companies and use standardized criteria to determine how much compensation to pay to claimants.

There are 60 active asbestos trust funds in the United States. Collectively, they have set aside an estimated $30 billion for present and future claims.

Claims based on a mesothelioma diagnosis are the simplest to submit because mesothelioma is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma patients usually receive the maximum payout a trust fund can provide as compensation for developing this aggressive type of cancer.

Legal Claims and Settlements

When a liable company has not set up an asbestos trust fund, a family impacted by mesothelioma can seek compensation by filing a legal claim. Very few mesothelioma cases actually go to trial. Most are settled out of court through negotiation.

Veterans Resources

Veterans who develop mesothelioma because of active-duty asbestos exposure are eligible for special VA benefits such as free cancer treatment and monthly disability compensation. More information is available from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Mesothelioma Organization Information

The following organizations provide additional information about mesothelioma prognosis and treatment, including novel therapies being tested in clinical trials:

Last Modified: August 1, 2019

3 Cited Research Articles

  1. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2019, June 6). Recruiting, Not yet recruiting, Available Studies | "Mesothelioma". Retrieved from
  2. National Cancer Institute. (2019, March 7). Malignant Mesothelioma Symptoms, Tests, Prognosis, and Stages. Retrieved from
  3. American Cancer Society. (2018, November 16). Malignant Mesothelioma. Retrieved from