Mesothelioma is a very aggressive and deadly form of cancer. Though treatments are available, many people with this cancer succumb to this disease.

If you compare the 5-year survival rate of the cancers with the lowest five-year survival:

  • Mesothelioma (7.2%)
  • Pancreatic cancer (7.3%)
  • Brain cancer (12.8%)

Mesothelioma thereby classifies as the deadliest type of cancer.

 What is Mesothelioma?

Most of the organs of the body and the body cavities have a protective membrane that covers them. This membrane is called the mesothelium.

Mesothelioma is a cancer that affects the cells of the mesothelium. It is also referred to as asbestos cancer, for the reasons explained below.

There are two layers of the mesothelium. One layer immediately covers the organ while the other layer forms a protective sac around it. Between the two layers is a fluid that acts as a lubricant and allows the movements of the organs.

Examples of mesothelium are

  • The pericardium of the heart
  • Pleura of the lungs, and
  • Peritoneum of the abdomen

Types of Mesothelioma Cancer

  • Pericardial mesothelioma is the cancer of the pericardium. The pericardial fluid inside the pericardium allows for the expansion and contraction of the heart. This accounts for 5% of all such cases.
  • Pleural or lung mesothelioma is a cancer of the pleura. This type involves the pleura with the pleural fluid inside, which allows for the expansion and contraction of the lungs. It is more common and accounts for 75% of cases.
  • Peritoneal mesothelioma involves the peritoneum. The peritoneal sac lines the abdominal cavity and contains the peritoneal fluid inside. This accounts for 20% of these cancer cases.
  • Testicular mesothelioma develops when rarely, there are metastases to the testes.
  • Benign mesothelioma can also occur when it is benign and nonmalignant.

Mesothelioma facts

Compared to other cancers, the occurrence of mesothelioma is rare.

  • Most cases are diagnosed in people aged 75 and over.
  • In the United States, about 2000 to 3000 cases are reported each year.
  • More than 2,700 cases are diagnosed each year in the UK.
  • It is more common in men and the ratio of men to women is 3: 1.
  • Mesothelioma is an occupational hazard due to exposure to asbestos. The period from initial exposure to asbestos to death from this cancer is 30 to 40 years.
  • Asbestos workers are at a 10% risk of getting it in their lifetime.
  • Smoking does not increase its risk.
  • Just an exposure of one to two months is enough to make you a high-risk factor for this cancerous disease, which may manifest 30 to 60 years later.
  • Once it is diagnosed, the life expectancy of the patient is about 12 to 18 months to live. Diagnosis is often late when the disease has fairly progressed. Recent emerging treatment options do improve life expectancy by a few years but death is almost always certain.
  • Occupations and professions more at risk include most frequently, carpenters, joiners, plumbers, heating and ventilating engineers, electricians, boilermakers, and shipbuilders.

Causes and risk factors

The most common cause of mesothelioma cancer is exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous material, which is used for insulation purposes.

This cancer is an occupational hazard and affects those who work in the industry associated with asbestos. This disease occurs due to inhalation and/or ingestion of asbestos fibers.

It is therefore also referred to as asbestos mesothelioma because the greatest risk factor of this cancer is an association with asbestos.

  • Cause of pleural mesothelioma. During the breaking of the asbestos, tiny fibers of asbestos are released into the air, which are inhaled by those working on it. The tiny asbestos fibers get lodged in the tiny airways of the lungs. This leads to inflammation of the lung tissue. These tiny needle-shaped fibers travel and get lodged in the pleura of the lungs where they can cause pleural malignancy. This is also referred to as lung mesothelioma.
  • Cause of peritoneal mesothelioma. Fine fibers can also be ingested or swallowed and get lodged in the digestive tract. From there, they migrate to the peritoneum (lining of the abdominal cavity) and cause inflammation and swelling. This can lead to peritoneal mesothelioma over the years.
  • Cause of pericardial mesothelioma. Pericardial mesothelioma is a cancer of the pericardium (membrane covering the heart) and is extremely rare. It is strongly associated with asbestos exposure, but how the asbestos fibers that are inhaled or ingested cause cancer in the pericardium is not fully understood.

Which people are at high risk?

There have been cases where mesothelioma has developed in people who have never worked in an asbestos factory. Such people are :

  • Those who come in contact with the clothes of people who work in the asbestos industry, which leads to their inhaling or swallowing the fine fibers of asbestos dusted off the clothes. For example, they could be sharing a room with someone working in an asbestos unit.
  • People who live near an asbestos industry and who inhale the fine asbestos fibers that are released into the atmosphere from the asbestos factory.
  • People who do asbestos-related work are also at great risk. Asbestos is used mainly for insulation against heat and sound and protection against fire and corrosion. It, therefore, finds use in the insulation of pipes, ducts, ceilings, walls, building compounds, flooring, brake pads, and heating household items like toasters and furnaces. Those who do such work are at great risk of developing mesothelioma.
  • Occasionally, exposure to radiation has also been known to be a cause.
  • This cancer is not due to a genetic cause, which is known to be a major cause and risk factor of cancer in general. Family members of such patients are therefore not at any cancer risk.
  • Just an exposure of one to two months of asbestos is enough to develop mesothelioma, which may manifest maybe 40 or 50, or 60 years later.


Symptoms and signs of mesothelioma cancer resemble other common nondangerous health disorders and that is the reason why its diagnosis is often late.

These mesothelioma symptoms vary according to its type and each is discussed separately. Mesothelioma progresses in stages. There are no symptoms seen in the early stages. Symptoms and signs present in the late or advanced stages.

General symptoms

  • Fever
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss with no apparent cause
  • Formation of blood clots
  • Loss of appetite

Symptoms and signs of pleural mesothelioma

  • Chest pain
  • Persistent cough,
  • Shortness of breath,
  • A feeling of fatigue,
  • Fever
  • Pleural effusion – collection of fluid in the pleura.
  • Lumps of mesothelioma may be felt on the chest.

Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma

  • Unexplained weight loss,
  • Fever,
  • Nausea,
  • Abdominal swelling and pain,
  • Constipation due to intestinal obstruction

Symptoms and signs of pericardial mesothelioma

  • Chest pain,
  • Fever,
  • Irregular beating of the heart,
  • Palpitations,
  • Difficulty in breathing,
  • Night sweats.
  • Pericardial effusion

As mentioned above, all these symptoms resemble those of many other more common diseases, and being rare, your doctor may not even think of mesothelioma in deriving his diagnosis.

The giveaway will be your association with any job situation, which has brought you in contact either primarily or secondarily with asbestos.