Malignant mesothelioma is an uncommon cancerous tumor of the lining of the lung and chest cavity (pleura) or lining of the abdomen (peritoneum). It is due to long-term asbestos exposure.
Long-term exposure to asbestos -- a fire-resistant material -- is the biggest risk factor. Asbestos was once commonly found in insulation, ceiling and roofing vinyls, cement, and automotive brake materials. Although many asbestos workers smoked, experts do not believe smoking itself is a cause of this condition.
Malignant mesothelioma affects men more often than women. The average age at diagnosis is 60. Most people seem to develop the condition about 30 years after being in contact with the asbestos.
Symptoms may not appear until 20 to 50 years or longer after exposure to asbestos, and may include:
Mesothelioma is often hard to diagnose under the microscope. It can be hard to distinguish between this disease and similar conditions and tumors.
Malignant mesothelioma is a difficult cancer to treat.
There is usually no cure, unless the disease is found extremely early and the tumor can be completely removed with surgery. Most of the time when the disease is diagnosed it is too advanced for surgery. Chemotherapy or radiation may be used to reduce symptoms. Combining certain chemotherapy drugs may help decrease symptoms, but it will not cure the cancer.
Untreated, most patients survive about 9 months.
Consider participating in a clinical trial (test of new treatments), which may give you more treatment options.
Pain relief, oxygen, and other supportive treatments may also help relieve symptoms.
You can ease the stress of illness by joining a support group where members share common experiences and problems.
The average survival time varies from 4 to 18 months. Your outlook depends on:
The stage of the tumor
Your age and general health
Whether surgery is an option
Your response to treatment
Side effects of chemotherapy or radiation
Continued spread of cancer to other organs
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you have symptoms of malignant mesothelioma.
Avoid exposure to asbestos.
National Cancer Institute: PDQ Malignant Mesothelioma Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified 3/07/2014. Available at http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/malignantmesothelioma/HealthProfessional. Accessed May 29, 2014.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines): Malignant pleural mesothelioma. Version 1.2014. Available at http://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/mpm.pdf. Accessed May 29, 2014.
Yi-Bin Chen, MD, Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.