Mesothelioma Explained

Mesothelioma is a malignant tumour caused by mesothelial cells lining the inside of the chest and abdomen. It is a very rare disease.


Anne Jäkel

Roland Schäfli



Pleural mesothelioma is a cancer that develops in your pleura, which consists of two tissue sheets covering your lungs with a small space between the layers of tissue. There is a small gap between the sheets of tissue called the pleural space. The peritoneum is a layer of tissue covering your abdominal organs that protects your stomach organs from external damage and keeps them in place. As you move, your internal organs are lubricated by peritoneal fluid.

A benign mesothelioma refers to mesothelioma that is not cancerous (benign) and may occur in the area of the lung or your reproductive organs, but this is extremely rare.

Asbestos Exposure as a Cause

Asbestos is the only proven cause of mesothelioma.

Fibres from asbestos may become embedded in the lungs, abdomen, or heart lining when inhaled or ingested. They lead to inflammation and scarring over time. The irritation can ultimately cause mesothelioma tumours to develop. Occupational exposure to asbestos may be higher in some occupations. It is possible for workers to be exposed to asbestos while at work. Shipyard workers, machinists and mechanics are among the high-risk occupations. Second-hand exposure puts those who frequently interact with these workers at risk as well. It is possible to bring asbestos home on workers’ hair, skin, and clothing. Asbestos exposure poses a health risk to family members.

The symptoms of mesothelioma can emerge 10-50 years after exposure to asbestos. Symptoms can often be mistaken for less serious illnesses, causing early diagnosis to be difficult. It is important to seek medical attention when symptoms are present, as early detection can improve the mesothelioma prognosis.

Mesothelioma is relatively rare type of lung cancer.

The incidence of mesothelioma is higher among men than among women. This cancer is more prevalent in older people. Approximately 3,000 mesothelioma cases are diagnosed in the USA each year. [1] Worldwide, the incidence of mesothelioma is estimated to be about 1-6 cases per 100,000 population. [2]

Four Main Types of Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma can be classified into four main types according to the site of the tumour. Malignant pleural mesothelioma is the most common type which starts in the chest; three out of four mesotheliomas are of this type. Other types are peritoneal mesotheliomas which occur in the abdominal area and make up most of the remaining cases of mesotheliomas. Very rare types are pericardial mesotheliomas which start around the heart and tunica vaginalis mesotheliomas which start in the area of the testicles.

Tumours with mesothelioma are composed of various types of cells. Symptoms, prognosis and treatment options vary according to the type of mesothelioma and the type of cells involved.

As soon as mesothelioma is diagnosed, it will be classified into one of four stages, with stage I being localized mesothelioma which has not spread yet and stage IV mesothelioma being spread. Staging mesothelioma will provide insights into prognosis and treatment options.

Prognosis usually depends on stage, location and type.

Data for the life expectancy of mesothelioma patients in England show that 45 out of 100 people (45%) survive their mesothelioma for one year or more after diagnosis. More than 5 out of 100 patients (5%) survive their mesothelioma for five years or more. [3] It is possible for some patients to live for months, even years beyond their prognosis. 

Treatment Options

The majority of treatment options are available to patients at stage I or II. Treatment options at stages III and IV tend to be more limited.

  • A typical treatment for mesothelioma involves surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. New treatments are being explored through clinical trials.
  • Early-stage cancers are frequently treated with aggressive surgeries. Palliative surgery is often done in the later stages.
  • As a standard first-line chemotherapy treatment for mesothelioma, cisplatin or carboplatin combined with pemetrexed is used.
  • External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) and intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) are the two types of radiation for mesothelioma. EBRT, which is the most common type of radiation therapy for mesothelioma, uses high-energy beams directed to specific parts of the body to kill cancer cells and stop the tumour from growing. IMRT is a specific kind of EBRT where radiation beams are adjusted according to the tumour’s size, location, and other factors.  
  • Immunotherapy and gene therapy are among the experimental therapies for mesothelioma. Patients should consult a doctor who has expertise in mesothelioma. Specialized care allows doctors to develop patient-specific treatment plans that can prolong their lives.

Communication with others who have experienced treating, diagnosing, and surviving mesothelioma is important to get as much information and support when dealing with mesothelioma.


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