Mesothelioma

Quick Summary

Mesothelioma is an aggressive, incurable, and rare cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Over 100,000 Americans have died from mesothelioma in the past 30 years, including over 30,000 U.S. veterans. VA benefits are available for veterans diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, including disability and VA health care.

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What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a cancer that affects the mesothelium, the thin layer of tissue that covers most internal organs. It is typically caused when asbestos fibers get stuck in the linings of major organs.

Mesothelioma can develop in the linings of the:

  • Lungs (pleura)
  • Heart (pericardium)
  • Abdomen (peritoneum)
  • Testicles (tunica vaginalis)

Most mesothelioma cases are not diagnosed until the cancer has spread and mild symptoms have worsened. Fortunately, there are treatment options available no matter when someone is diagnosed.

Top Facts About Mesothelioma

  • 20-50 years for mesothelioma to develop
  • 3,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed yearly
  • 33% of those diagnosed are U.S. veterans

Mesothelioma Symptoms

Common symptoms of mesothelioma like a cough or shortness of breath often start mild and mimic signs of more common health problems like bronchitis, flu, or pneumonia.

Common Symptoms of Mesothelioma

Top symptoms of mesothelioma include:

  • Chest or abdominal pain
  • Frequent, dry, or painful coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fever and night sweats
  • Pleural effusion (fluid buildup in lung lining)
  • Shoulder, rib, and upper back pain
  • Weakness and fatigue

If you are experiencing mesothelioma symptoms, tell your doctor if you were ever exposed to asbestos. This can help them rule out other possible causes of your symptoms.

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Mesothelioma Causes

The only known cause of malignant mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a mineral used in many products due to its durability and resistance to heat. However, by the early 1980s, it was clear that people were dying from cancer after breathing in or swallowing asbestos fibers.

How Much Asbestos Exposure Causes Mesothelioma? There is no safe amount of asbestos exposure. Anyone exposed can develop mesothelioma or another asbestos-related illness.

How Mesothelioma Develops

  • 1. When asbestos-containing products are handled or damaged, people may breathe in or swallow asbestos fibers.
  • 2. Asbestos fibers embed themselves in the linings of major organs and cause irritation.
  • 3. After 20-50 years, malignant mesothelioma cancer can develop.

Who is at Risk of Mesothelioma?

Anyone exposed to asbestos is at risk of mesothelioma later in life. Those with the highest risk regularly worked around asbestos-based products for long periods, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Those with a very high risk of mesothelioma include boilermakers, construction workers, electricians, mechanics, plumbers, and shipyard workers. Those who served on U.S. Navy ships are also at a high risk since these vessels heavily relied on asbestos.

Veterans & Mesothelioma Risk

Veterans have a high risk of mesothelioma due to the widespread use of asbestos in the military between the 1930s and early 1980s. During this time, the U.S. military believed asbestos was safe since manufacturers of asbestos-based products hid the facts. Veterans with mesothelioma can seek military benefits and financial compensation after a diagnosis.

Navy & Asbestos Risks

There have been more mesothelioma cases in Navy veterans than in any other branch. Navy ships were packed with asbestos-containing products. Navy shipyard workers also had to install and remove asbestos products regularly.

Asbestos & the Army

The U.S. Army used tons of asbestos to build its bases and barracks. Asbestos-containing products could also be found in many of the vehicles used by the U.S. Army. There are many reported cases of Army veterans with mesothelioma as a result.

Variations and Types of Mesothelioma

There are 4 types (and locations) of mesothelioma:

Any type of mesothelioma can be deadly, but some respond better to life-extending treatments than others.

Cell Types

Cell types are also used to classify a mesothelioma diagnosis.

Mesothelioma cell type refers to the different cells that form the tumor(s). There are 3 main mesothelioma cell types: epithelioid, sarcomatoid, and biphasic. A patient’s cell type greatly affects their health outlook, as some cells grow and spread more rapidly than others.

Stages of Mesothelioma

Pleural mesothelioma is the only type of mesothelioma with an official staging system. In pleural mesothelioma, there are 4 stages of mesothelioma.

Learn about mesothelioma types by location below.

Pleural Mesothelioma

Located in the lining of the lungs.

  • Makes up 85-90% of all mesothelioma cases
  • Develops in the lining of the lungs (pleura)
  • Symptoms include shortness of breath and chest pain
  • Average life expectancy is 12 to 21 months
Learn More

Peritoneal Mesothelioma

Located in the lining of the abdomen.

  • 10-15% of all mesothelioma cases
  • Develops in the abdomen lining (peritoneum)
  • Symptoms include abdominal pain/swelling and fatigue
  • Patients live 28-35 months on average
Learn More

Pericardial Mesothelioma

Located in the lining of the heart.

  • Less than 1% of all cases
  • Develops in the lining of the heart (pericardium)
  • Symptoms include chest pain and fluid buildup
  • The average life expectancy is 5-6 months
Learn More

Testicular Mesothelioma

Located in the lining of the testes.

  • Only 250 cases ever reported
  • Develops in the lining of the testes (tunica vaginalis)
  • Symptoms are pain and swelling of testicle lining
  • Patients live 23 months on average

There are 4 types of mesothelioma: pleural, peritoneal, pericardial, and testicular. Any type of mesothelioma can be deadly, but some respond better to life-extending treatments than others.

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Getting a Mesothelioma Diagnosis

If someone has symptoms of mesothelioma and a history of asbestos exposure, seeing a doctor is the first step to getting a diagnosis. Once a patient has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, doctors can create the best cancer care plan.

Doctors typically use several tests to make a mesothelioma diagnosis.

Mesothelioma Radiology Scans

Radiology and imaging tests scan a patient’s body for possibly cancerous tumors and other signs of mesothelioma.

Examples of imaging scans for mesothelioma include:

  • CT (computed tomography)
  • PET (positron emission tomography)
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
  • X-rays

Although imaging tests are an important first step in identifying abnormalities, they will not confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis. If doctors think a cancerous tumor may be present after these scans, they will order a biopsy.

Biopsy

The only way to confirm a diagnosis of mesothelioma is through a biopsy.

A biopsy collects the affected area’s fluid and/or tissue samples. The sample is then sent to a lab and analyzed to see if cancer cells are present and, if so, what type.

Once a cancer doctor (oncologist) has the biopsy results, they can recommend treatments to their patient based on the diagnosis.

Mesothelioma Prognosis

As part of a diagnosis, doctors will provide a mesothelioma prognosis. The prognosis is an estimation of the patient’s expected health outlook. Two major parts of a mesothelioma prognosis are life expectancy and survival rate.

Mesothelioma Life Expectancy

Life expectancy is the average amount of time someone is expected to live after diagnosis. Mesothelioma life expectancy varies widely depending on the location and cell type of the cancer. That said, the average lifespan for someone with mesothelioma is 12-21 months.

Survival Rates for Mesothelioma

A survival rate is the number of people still alive after a certain span of time. It is measured in percentages. The 5-year mesothelioma survival rate is 10%, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). This means 10% of patients will still be alive 5 years after diagnosis.

The prognosis for mesothelioma is often poor, as most patients are diagnosed after their cancer has spread. However, a prognosis is not set in stone. Some mesothelioma patients have outlived a prognosis by years or even decades with the right treatments and medical care.

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  • Top Treatment
  • Best Doctors
  • Improving Prognosis

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Mesothelioma Doctors

One of the best ways patients can improve their prognosis is by working with a mesothelioma doctor. These doctors have dedicated their practice to finding each patient’s best treatments.

Multiple doctors treat veterans with mesothelioma through the VA, all of whom have many years of experience and are recognized experts in the field.

Let us help you get in contact with a mesothelioma specialist in your state. Call (877) 450-8973 or Chat Now

Mesothelioma Treatment Options

Treatments for mesothelioma include options to increase lifespan and palliative care to ease symptoms. The type of treatments a doctor will recommend can vary based on the cancer’s stage, the overall health of the patient, and possible side effects.

Surgery

The goal of mesothelioma surgery is usually to remove all visible tumors. Options for surgical treatment of malignant pleural mesothelioma include an extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP) and a pleurectomy/decortication (P/D). The main surgery option for peritoneal mesothelioma is cytoreductive surgery with heated chemotherapy (HIPEC).

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a widely used cancer treatment involving specialized drugs targeting cancerous cells. Doctors may use chemotherapy alone or combine it with surgery for best results. Chemotherapy can add months or years to a patient’s lifespan.

Radiation

Radiation therapy is a painless procedure that kills cancer cells using X-rays and other high-energy particles. It isn’t always effective for treating mesothelioma as it often kills healthy tissue and cancer cells.

Clinical Trials

Mesothelioma clinical trials can provide patients access to new therapies if standard treatment options don’t work. Some treatments like immunotherapy were approved for mainstream use after encouraging results in clinical trials. Contact us today to learn about clinical trials, including ones available at VA hospitals.

Help for Veterans With Mesothelioma

Veterans with mesothelioma can access financial and medical benefits that aren’t available to the general public. Learn about notable mesothelioma benefits for veterans below.

VA Benefits for Mesothelioma

Veterans honorably discharged and have developed mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure during their time in the military are entitled to VA benefits.

Financial benefits like mesothelioma VA disability compensation provide veterans over $3,000 a month. Veterans may also qualify for even more financial benefits, such as pension plans.

Mesothelioma Treatment at VA Hospitals

The VA health care system has two specialized cancer centers dedicated to treating veterans with mesothelioma.

VA mesothelioma cancer centers include:

  • VA Boston Healthcare System: Dr. Abraham “Avi” Lebenthal and his team treat mesothelioma at the Boston VA West Roxbury campus.
  • West Los Angeles VA Medical Center: This facility treats patients under the direction of world-renowned mesothelioma specialists. The West Los Angeles VA Medical Center is partnered with UCLA’s Comprehensive Mesothelioma Program.

Mesothelioma treatment at a VA hospital is usually offered for free or at a reduced cost for veterans and their families.

Mesothelioma Legal Compensation

Legal compensation can help offset the costs of medical treatment and other expenses that may stem from this cancer. Mesothelioma legal compensation can be accessed through trust fund claims and lawsuits.

Mesothelioma Lawsuits

These lawsuits seek compensation from the makers of asbestos-based products. Mesothelioma lawsuits award $1 million on average. A mesothelioma lawsuit is not filed against the U.S. military and will not affect a veteran’s VA benefits. Most lawsuits end in mesothelioma settlements, ensuring that money is paid out to the veteran and their loved ones quickly.

Asbestos Trust Funds

Bankrupt manufacturers of asbestos-based products established trust funds to pay those with mesothelioma. An estimated $30 billion is available in these special trusts for affected veterans and civilians.

Finding Support for Mesothelioma

A mesothelioma diagnosis can feel confusing and isolating, but patients have many options to find support and resources.

Support Groups

Mesothelioma support groups can offer comfort and practical advice to help patients and caregivers know they’re not fighting alone. These groups meet online, in person, and over the phone.

Hospice

Patients with late-stage mesothelioma may benefit from hospice care. The goal of hospice care is to preserve the patient’s comfort and quality of life as much as possible. Hospice care may also include counseling and bereavement services for family members.

Common Questions About Mesothelioma Treatment Centers

What is the main cause of mesothelioma?

The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. When someone disturbs asbestos by working with or around it, they could easily inhale its microscopic fibers.

The human body cannot break down the fibers. Over time, healthy cells in the body are mutated into cancerous ones by these asbestos fibers.

Those who worked around asbestos decades ago have a very high risk of mesothelioma today, as it takes 20-50 years for this cancer to develop after exposure.

Why are veterans at risk of mesothelioma?

Veterans are at risk of mesothelioma because the U.S. military relied on asbestos-containing products from the 1930s to the early 1980s. Any veteran that served in the military during this time could develop mesothelioma today.

The military was one of the biggest consumers of asbestos because it helped keep bases, vehicles, and ships durable and fireproof. Veterans with the highest risk of mesothelioma include mechanics and shipyard workers as they regularly worked around asbestos-containing products.

What are common symptoms of mesothelioma?

Common symptoms of mesothelioma include a cough, shortness of breath, and pain in the affected area (chest, abdominal cavity, heart, or testicles). Unfortunately, the early symptoms of mesothelioma may be mistaken for non-cancerous diseases like the flu.

Always consult with a doctor if you develop mesothelioma symptoms after asbestos exposure. Catching symptoms early on can help you get a diagnosis before the cancer has spread. This, in turn, may help you live longer as more treatments may be available.

Is mesothelioma always fatal?

Sadly, many people pass away from mesothelioma. However, some mesothelioma patients have been able to live for years or even decades after a diagnosis.

An early diagnosis and aggressive treatments can go a long way in helping you live longer, which is why it’s important to connect with top mesothelioma specialists as soon as possible.

Can mesothelioma be cured?

There is currently no cure for mesothelioma. That said, treatments can help patients live for very long spans of time.

Some patients can even enter remission thanks to these treatments. Patients won’t suffer from symptoms if their cancer is in remission and the tumors won’t spread.

Doctors are currently looking for a cure for mesothelioma and new ways to help patients live longer through clinical trials.

What's the life expectancy for someone with mesothelioma?

The average life expectancy for someone with mesothelioma is 12-21 months. However, some may live longer or shorter than this.

Factors that affect life expectancy include the type of mesothelioma you were diagnosed with, when you were diagnosed, and what treatments you receive.

Some mesothelioma patients have lived for 15 years or more after their diagnosis thanks to early and aggressive treatment.

Veterans Support Team
Todd Gersten, MD PhotoReviewed by:Todd Gersten, MD

Double Board-Certified Oncologist and Hematologist

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Todd Gersten, MD is a double board-certified medical oncologist and hematologist specializing in general adult oncology and hematologic disease. He is a physician partner with the Florida Cancer Specialists and practices in Wellington, Florida.

Dr. Todd Gersten is an independently paid medical reviewer.

Christopher Dryfoos PhotoWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos is a journalist and member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). As the grandson of the U.S. Navy’s first forensic pathologist, he aims to help veterans with mesothelioma access needed care.

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