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Mesothelioma is a rare and serious cancer that affects the mesothelium, or lining, of various organs. You are at risk of developing this cancer if you have been exposed to asbestos. There is a 20-40 year latency between exposure and cancer development. Every year, there are approximately 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma in the United States.

Mesothelioma is a unique disease that affects the lining of either the lung or the lining of the abdominal cavity. Mesothelial cells are a very special kind of cell. The way we’re made, if we normally inhale and exhale, we generally aren’t supposed to feel pain; if we did not have the mesothelial lining, we would. What would happen is our lungs would rub against our rib cage, but because of this lining we’ve got, it’s like an oily Saran wrap; it allows the lung to increase and expand, and decrease, and it allows this movement without it rubbing the rib cage.

Now, that lining, those cells, are the ones that become cancerous in mesothelioma, and it makes it a very difficult disease to treat. I told you that the mesothelial cells, that this lining is see-through like Saran wrap; that’s because it doesn’t really have a blood supply to it. Blood supply makes tissue: red, blue, and other things; this is one where, as a result of no blood supply, it’s really difficult to treat. You can’t really take chemicals like you can for chemotherapy, in a normal way, to treat this. So mesothelioma is a very difficult disease to find any relief from, and it’s a disease that’s not really affecting the lung itself directly, but is doing so indirectly by affecting the lining of the lung or the lining of the abdominal cavity.


approximate number of new mesothelioma cases per year in the U.S.

20 million

people in the U.S. are at risk of developing mesothelioma at some point in their lives


of all cases are pleural mesothelioma which occurs in the lining of the lungs

20-40 years+

latency period between asbestos exposure and potential development of mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a rare but aggressive type of cancer that occurs in the mesothelium, which is a type of membrane that lines certain organs of the body. The primary risk factor for developing mesothelioma cancer is asbestos exposure. Without treatment, the average life expectancy is only a few months. Treatment can extend this in certain patients, but mesothelioma is still considered incurable, and long-term remission is very rare.

Types of Mesothelioma

There are different types of mesothelioma, which are found in different places in the body.


occurs in the pleura, the lining of the lungs. This is by far the most common type, accounting for about 80 percent of all mesothelioma cases.


occurs in the peritoneum, the lining of the digestive system. This is the next most common type, accounting for about 15 percent of mesothelioma cases.


occurs in the pericardium, the lining of the heart. This type is very rare.


occurs in the tunica vaginalis, the lining of the testes. This type is also very rare.

Mesothelioma Risk Factors

The most common cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. More than 80 percent of pleural mesothelioma patients and up to half of peritoneal mesothelioma patients have a known history of asbestos exposure.

Asbestos is a mineral that was used for many years across a wide variety of industries due to its stability and resistance to heat. It tends to break easily into fibers, which can be extremely tiny—so tiny that they can’t be seen, felt, or even smelled when they’re suspended in the air.

Asbestos fibers are naturally long, thin, and sharp. When inhaled, they can become embedded into the lung tissue and work their way into the surrounding pleura. They may also be coughed up and swallowed. Asbestos is so chemically stable that even stomach acid can’t destroy it, and the fibers can embed themselves into the digestive tract and may work their way through into the surrounding peritoneum.


It’s clear that asbestos is strongly associated with the development of mesothelioma, but scientists are still working to understand exactly how the mineral causes cancer. Any foreign substance in the body will naturally provoke an inflammatory response, and asbestos does so in the mesothelium. However, it’s such a stable mineral that the body isn’t able to destroy it.

A stronger and stronger immune response occurs as the body attempts to get rid of the asbestos. This inflammation can eventually lead to scarring, which results in a lung disease known as asbestosis. In addition, it can cause damage to the DNA of cells, which has the potential to lead to cancer. Although asbestos exposure is most strongly linked to mesothelioma, it can also cause other types of cancer, including lung cancer.

It takes many years for asbestos exposure to lead to mesothelioma. This time period, known as the latency period, can be 20 to 40 years or even longer.

Many people were exposed to asbestos at work. Military veterans, industrial workers, construction workers and firefighters are among those who are most likely to have had workplace asbestos exposure.

The families of workers may also have been exposed because asbestos fibers can travel on a person’s clothing, skin and hair, and then enter the air in the home. This secondary exposure to asbestos is a contributor to mesothelioma in women.

Some people have also had asbestos exposure that wasn’t related to work; for example, some commercial talcum powders have been found to be contaminated with asbestos.

Mesothelioma is relatively rare, accounting for less than 0.3 percent of all cancer diagnoses in the United States. About 3.000 cases are diagnosed every year. This number increased from the 1970s through the 1990s but is now relatively steady, likely because of increased regulation of asbestos.

Although it’s now heavily regulated, asbestos is not completely banned in the United States, and asbestos imports continue to occur.

Mesothelioma Symptoms

The symptoms of mesothelioma are different for each type. These symptoms are often similar to those of other diseases, many of which are more common than mesothelioma. This can lead to a delay in diagnosis.

Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

Patients with pleural mesothelioma may experience symptoms such as: