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. There are VA benefits available for veterans diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, including disability and VA health care.

View Summary: Registered Nurse Amy Fair explains what mesothelioma is, the causes, and the symptoms. View Transcript.

What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma attacks the tissues that line most major organs, called the mesothelium. It is known mainly to attack the mesothelium of the lung, pericardial sack, peritoneal cavity in the abdomen, and also known to attack the lining of the testicles.

One of the first symptoms for developing mesothelioma is shortness of breath. A lot of times folks will have the shortness of breath with the pleuritic chest pain. This is also followed sometimes by substantial weight loss.

Many times after being diagnosed with mesothelioma your physician may ask you if you have been exposed to asbestos. Asbestos is a causative factor for mesothelioma. Some of the imaging studies may show underlying pleural plaques which are indicated that they have been around asbestos and may have underlying asbestosis.

The risk factors for developing mesothelioma are working around asbestos-related products, or being indirectly around those products such as secondhand exposures that are seen with wives that launder their loves ones’ clothes that have asbestos dust on them. So direct asbestos exposure, as well as indirect asbestos exposure, can be causative factors for mesothelioma.

If you have symptoms of mesothelioma of any asbestos-related disease, it’s important that you inform your doctor of your asbestos exposure so that appropriate testing can be done.

Medically edited and fact-checked by: Todd Gersten, MD, Double Board-Certified Oncologist and Hematologist
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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. The biggest risk factor for mesothelioma is asbestos exposure.

Mesothelioma can develop in the linings of the:

Until it has spread and its symptoms worsen, mesothelioma is usually hard to diagnose. Fortunately, there are treatment options available no matter when someone is diagnosed.

Mesothelioma Causes

The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a mineral that was used in many products due to its durability and resistance to heat. However, in the 1970s, it became clear that people were dying from cancer after inhaling or swallowing asbestos fibers.

How Mesothelioma Develops

  1. When asbestos-containing products are handled or damaged, people may breathe in or swallow asbestos fibers.
  2. Once in the body, these indestructible fibers embed themselves in the lining of the lungs or abdomen and cause irritation.
  3. After 20-50 years, malignant mesothelioma cancer can develop.
Learn About Mesothelioma Causes
Mesothelioma Causes

Mesothelioma Symptoms

In many cases, the symptoms of mesothelioma start out mild and mimic signs of more common health problems like lung cancer or pneumonia.

Common symptoms of mesothelioma include:

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

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

Learn About Mesothelioma Symptoms

Getting a Mesothelioma Diagnosis

If someone has symptoms of mesothelioma, seeing a doctor is the first step to getting a diagnosis. Once a patient has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, doctors can determine the best treatment plan for their specific stage and type.

Doctors typically use multiple tests to make a mesothelioma diagnosis. Learn about the most commonly used tests below.

Mesothelioma Radiology Scans

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

Examples of radiological scans for mesothelioma include:

  • X-rays
  • MRI scans
  • CT scans
  • PET scans

Imaging scans alone will not confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis, but they are a crucial first step. If doctors believe a cancerous tumor may be present after conducting these scans, they will order a biopsy.

Mesothelioma Radiology Scans


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

A biopsy involves collecting and examining a fluid and/or tissue sample. The sample is sent to a lab and analyzed to see if the patient has cancer, and if so, what type.

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

Learn About Mesothelioma Diagnosis

Mesothelioma Prognosis

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

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 help.

Mesothelioma Doctors

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

There are multiple doctors who treat veterans with mesothelioma through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), all of whom have many years of experience and are recognized experts in the field.

Find a mesothelioma specialist in your state

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

Mesothelioma Treatment Options

Treatments for mesothelioma include curative options to increase lifespan and palliative care to ease symptoms and increase quality of life. The type of treatment a doctor recommends will vary based on the cancer’s stage and the overall health of the patient.

Clinical Trials

If standard treatment options aren’t working or are not available, mesothelioma clinical trials can provide patients with access to new and emerging therapies. Contact us today for more information on available clinical trials, including some at VA hospitals.

Clinical Trials
Learn About Mesothelioma Treatment Options

Help for Veterans With Mesothelioma

Veterans have a higher risk of mesothelioma due to 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.

Approximately 3,000 new cases of malignant (cancerous) mesothelioma are diagnosed yearly in the United States, and 33% of those diagnosed are U.S. veterans.

There have been cases of mesothelioma in every branch of the military, especially the U.S. Navy, which relied on asbestos more than any other branch.

Fortunately, veterans with mesothelioma may have access to financial benefits and free medical treatment through the VA.

VA Benefits for Mesothelioma

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

Disability compensation alone provides eligible veterans with over $3,000 per month. Veterans may also qualify for even more financial benefits, such as pension plans.

Need help with VA Benefits?

VA Benefits for Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma Treatment at VA Hospitals

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

VA mesothelioma cancer centers include:

  • Boston VA Hospital: Dr. Abraham “Avi” Lebenthal and his team perform thoracic surgery at the Boston VA West Roxbury campus.
  • West Los Angeles VA Medical Center: This facility treats veterans on the West Coast. Its mesothelioma doctors also partner with UCLA’s Comprehensive Mesothelioma Program.
Mesothelioma Treatment at VA Hospitals
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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