What is Mesothelioma?


Malignant mesothelioma is cancer of the lining of the lungs, abdomen, and heart. It can be found in one or more of these places. Mesothelioma is rare, with about 3,000 people diagnosed each year in the United States. It is, unfortunately, very aggressive and there is no cure. Most people with mesothelioma have been exposed to asbestos, though it can take many years to develop after exposure.

Mesothelium is the thin lining covering most of the organs inside the body. A person with mesothelioma has cancerous tumors that develop in this lining. Because it most often develops in the lungs, it may be mistaken for lung cancer. Since mesothelioma is fast-growing and aggressive, it is usually not discovered until the cancer is likely to have spread.


Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos, a substance widely used in construction before its carcinogenic properties were understood. Asbestos is strong and fire-resistant, and many buildings utilized it for insulation. Today, we know that accidentally ingesting or inhaling airborne fibers of asbestos can cause scarring in the lungs (asbestosis) and malignant mesothelioma. Depending on the location and use of a building, leaving asbestos intact is sometimes determined to be safer than its removal. The process of asbestos removal unavoidably releases fibers into the air that can be inhaled or ingested.

Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos develops cancer. There may be a genetic component that makes someone susceptible to mesothelioma. To complicate matters further, it can take 20 – 50 years after exposure to asbestos before the condition develops. For these reasons, it took many years to determine that it was the asbestos causing cancer.

Types of Mesothelioma

There are four types of mesothelioma, determined by where in the body the tumors originate. The most common type is pleural (lung) mesothelioma. It can also be found in the abdomen (peritoneal), heart(pericardial), and testicles (testicular).

The vast majority – about 80 percent – of mesothelioma cases are found in the lungs. It is thought to be the most likely place for asbestos fibers to land after inadvertently inhaling the particles. Symptoms in the early stages of this type of cancer are usually too mild to prompt treatment or the appropriate diagnostic tests. Because most cases are not found until stage 3 or 4 of the disease, most people with pleural mesothelioma do not live longer than a year after being diagnosed. Symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath, difficulty taking a deep breath, and fluid in the lungs. Treatment for pleural mesothelioma is usually surgery followed by chemotherapy and radiation.

The second most common type, peritoneal mesothelioma, starts in the lining of the abdomen. The main symptom is abdominal pain. It can spread throughout the abdominal organs, to the liver, pancreas, kidneys, or intestines. Survival rates for peritoneal mesothelioma are low but improving due to advances in chemotherapy for this part of the body. The prognosis improves if it is diagnosed in the early stages of the disease.

The other two types of mesothelioma account for about 1 percent of all mesothelioma cases.

Pericardial mesothelioma develops in the lining of the heart. Progression of this type of cancer includes disrupting the heart’s ability to distribute oxygen to the rest of the body. Symptoms for pericardial mesothelioma can be mistaken for a heart attack, including chest pain and shortness of breath. Because it is aggressive and rare, pericardial mesothelioma is difficult to diagnose.

Testicular mesothelioma is so rare that, to date, the number of reported cases is just 100 or so. Because of this, it is not as well understood as the other types, including how exposure to asbestos might ultimately travel to the testes. There is no consistent set of symptoms for testicular mesothelioma, although ultrasound and needle biopsy can determine the presence of a tumor; otherwise, surgical removal of a tumor is required for diagnosis.

Why not schedule a consultation with one of the pulmonary specialists at Northwest Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine – they are experienced in all kinds of lung conditions and can help you rule out other disorders if you suspect mesothelioma. Call 8154777350 or request an appointment online to visit us at one of our three convenient Illinois locations in Algonquin, Crystal Lake, or South Barrington.

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