Mesothelioma Facts

What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer — only around 3,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the United States according to the American Cancer Society. It is a disease that affects the cells that line certain organs, called mesothelial cells. Mesothelioma affects four regions of the body:

  • Pleural mesothelioma affects the cells that line the lungs.
  • Peritoneal mesotheliomas affect the cells lining organs in the abdominal region.
  • Pericardial mesotheliomas are rare and found in mesothelial cells around the heart.
  • Mesotheliomas of the tunica vaginalis are extremely rare and affect cells lining the testicles.

Mesotheliomas are grouped according to the way the cells look under a microscope. Most mesotheliomas are epitheliod — the rest are either sarcomatoid or a combination of the two (mixed or biphasic type). Mesothelial tumors most often affect the chest and abdominal regions.

What increases your risk of mesothelioma?

  • Asbestos exposure is the most common risk factor for mesothelioma. Tiny fibers of asbestos can be breathed in and become lodged in lung tissue. Until a few decades ago, asbestos was a common ingredient in things like building materials, steam pipes, vehicle brake shoes and plastics. Using asbestos in new materials was banned decades ago, but it still is present in the environment.

    Being exposed to asbestos is the leading cause of pleural mesothelioma and may also lead to peritoneal mesothelioma. Many people may have been exposed and do not even know about it. Sources can include home remodels or the use of talcum powder in the years before inspection standards improved.
  • Radiation exposure directed at the chest or abdomen, most often as a result of previous cancer treatment, increases risk of mesothelioma.
  • S40 (simian virus 40) exposure may be associated with developing mesothelioma. Some polio virus vaccines administered in the 1950s and '60s were contaminated with S40.
  • Older age makes you more likely to get cancer. Close to two-thirds of people diagnosed with mesothelioma are 65 or older, although in rare cases children may develop this disease.
  • Gender is a risk factor; men are more often diagnosed with mesothelioma.

What are the signs and symptoms of Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma symptoms vary based on the region affected. Pleural mesothelioma symptoms include:

  • a cough that does not go away
  • shortness of breath
  • pain in the chest or low back
  • sweating excessively
  • trouble swallowing
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • weight loss that you cannot explain
  • a hoarse voice
  • face and arm swelling

Peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms include:

  • swelling in the abdomen
  • pain the abdomen
  • constipation
  • weight loss that you cannot explain
  • nausea and vomiting

Symptoms of mesothelioma tend to mirror other illnesses and, as a result, may be confused for other more benign conditions for months or longer before diagnosis. If you are treated for those conditions, or if your symptoms last for several weeks despite medical treatment, you may need further consultation to rule out mesothelioma.