Quick Summary

Mesothelioma is an aggressive, incurable 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.

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What Is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a rare and incurable cancer caused by asbestos exposure. It affects the mesothelium, the thin layer of tissue that covers most internal organs. Approximately 3,000 new cases of malignant (cancerous) mesothelioma are diagnosed yearly in the United States.

Video 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.

There are 4 types of mesothelioma, each one characterized by where in the body the cancer first forms. Each type is serious, but some respond better to life-extending treatment than others.

Mesothelioma can develop in the linings of the:

  • Lungs
  • Abdomen
  • Heart
  • Testes

Symptoms of mesothelioma start out mild, often mimicking signs of more common health problems like lung cancer or pneumonia.

For this reason, mesothelioma is usually hard to diagnose until the cancer has spread and symptoms worsen.

Mesothelioma Causes

Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a mineral that was used in many products due to its resistance to heat. In the 1970s, it became clear that people were dying from cancer after inhaling or ingesting asbestos fibers.

How Mesothelioma Develops

  1. When asbestos-containing products are handled or damaged, asbestos fibers can be inhaled or swallowed.
  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 can develop.

There are 4 types of mesothelioma, each one characterized by where in the body the cancer first forms. Each type is deadly, but some respond better to life-extending treatment than others.

Symptoms of mesothelioma start out mild, often mimicking signs of more common health problems like lung cancer or pneumonia. For this reason, mesothelioma is usually hard to diagnose until the cancer has spread and symptoms worsen.

Mesothelioma & Veterans

U.S. military veterans account for over 30% of all cases of mesothelioma.

Widespread use of asbestos in the military has put veterans who served from 1930-1980 at risk. These risk factors for mesothelioma are why veterans should be on the lookout for symptoms of the disease.

There have been cases of mesothelioma in every branch of the military, and many cases of asbestos exposure occurred on Navy ships.

Pleural Mesothelioma

Pleural mesothelioma develops in the pleura, which is the membrane that lines the lungs. It is the most common type of mesothelioma, accounting for 85-90% of all diagnoses.

The median survival for patients with malignant pleural mesothelioma is 12-21 months, but many factors can affect long-term survival.

“Mesothelioma is a tumor that’s found on the lining of the lungs. […] This constricts the lungs, which makes it difficult for people to take a deep breath. We can have fluid building around the lungs which can cause pain, shortness of breath.”

– Mary Hesdorffer, Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation

Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Frequent, dry or painful coughing
  • Coughing up blood (hemoptysis)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Tightening across the chest
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Fever and sweating
  • Rib pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fluid buildup in the lungs (pleural effusion)
  • Pain in the shoulders
  • Lumps of tissue building under the skin around the chest
  • Upper back pain

Peritoneal Mesothelioma

Peritoneal mesothelioma develops in the lining of the abdomen (peritoneum). It is the second most common type, accounting for about 10-15% of all mesothelioma cases.

Patients diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma have a median or average life expectancy of 28-35 months, a better survival rate than those diagnosed with any other mesothelioma type.

Peritoneal mesothelioma disproportionately affects women ages 30-40 years old and often remains in the abdominal area even after it has spread out from the mesothelium.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Blood in stool (fecal matter)
  • Bowel troubles (e.g.,constipation)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Tissue lumps under the skin of the abdomen
  • Anemia
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Fluid buildup (ascites)
  • Blood clots
  • Rib and upper back pain
  • Vomiting up blood

Pericardial Mesothelioma

Pericardial mesothelioma develops in the lining of the heart (pericardium) and makes up less than 1% of all cases.

Early detection of pericardial mesothelioma is rare, and this type of cancer has a median survival time of just 5-6 months.

Pericardial Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Heart murmurs
  • Fluid buildup in the pericardium (pericardial effusion)
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen face and arms

Testicular Mesothelioma

Testicular mesothelioma develops in the lining of the testes (tunica vaginalis). It is the rarest subgroup with only about 250 cases ever reported.

The median survival of testicular mesothelioma is 23 months.

Getting a Mesothelioma Diagnosis

If you have symptoms of mesothelioma, seeing a doctor is the first step to getting an accurate diagnosis.

Once a patient has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, they will work with a team of doctors to determine the best treatment plan for their stage and type of mesothelioma.

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

Mesothelioma Radiology Scans

Radiology and imaging tests allow doctors to look for symptoms that are not visible to the naked eye.

Examples of radiological scans for mesothelioma include:

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

However, imaging scans alone is not enough to confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis.


A biopsy involves collecting and examining a sample of tissue and/or fluid. It is the best diagnostic tool for accurately diagnosing mesothelioma. These samples are sent to a lab and analyzed by a pathologist who determines if the patient has cancer, and if so, what type.

“They started out with X-rays, some fluid in the lung. Then we went to a CAT scan, then we went to PET scan. Originally, I started out with an MRI […] Then I had the radiation department suggest that I have a biopsy surgery on it […] and that’s when I found out that I had mesothelioma.”

– Ernie, Pleural Mesothelioma Victim

The biopsy samples can be examined using cytology (the study of individual cells) or histology (the study of the cellular structure of tissue) depending upon the type of biopsy (whether fluid or tissue)

Mesothelioma Stages

Pleural mesothelioma is the only type with a formal staging system. Staging mesothelioma can help a doctor decide what treatments to pursue and whether long-term survival may be possible with proper care.

The most common staging system used when describing mesothelioma is the Tumor Node Metastasis (TNM) system.

This system includes 4 stages of pleural mesothelioma.

Stage 1 Mesothelioma

  • Stage 1 pleural mesothelioma has the best prognosis.
  • Diagnosis at this stage is rare because early symptoms can be mild or nonexistent.
  • Patients with stage 1 pleural mesothelioma have a life expectancy of 21.2 months.

Stage 2 Mesothelioma

  • Stage 2 patients have a poorer prognosis than those diagnosed earlier.
  • Surgery is usually still possible at this stage.
  • Patients with stage 2 pleural mesothelioma have a life expectancy of 18.9 months.

Stage 3 Mesothelioma

  • Outlook at this stage is generally poor.
  • The majority of stage 3 patients are no longer able to undergo surgery.
  • Patients with stage 3 pleural mesothelioma have a life expectancy of 14.3 months.

Stage 4 Mesothelioma

  • Stage 4 pleural mesothelioma has the worst prognosis.
  • During stage 4, the cancer may metastasize, meaning it has spread to distant parts of the body.
  • Patients with stage 4 pleural mesothelioma have a life expectancy of 10.1 months.

Mesothelioma Cell Types

Mesothelioma cell type refers to the type of cell that makes up the tumor(s). This plays an important part in determining prognosis and treatment options.

There are 3 main cell types of mesothelioma:

  • Epithelioid
  • Sarcomatoid
  • Biphasic

Epithelioid Mesothelioma

Epithelioid mesothelioma is the most common cell type, accounting for about 70% of all cases.

Patients with this cell type have the best outlook due to its slower growth and relative responsiveness to treatment.

Biphasic Mesothelioma

The second most common mesothelioma cell type is biphasic mesothelioma, which accounts for roughly 10-20% of all cases. Biphasic tumors have both sarcomatoid and epithelial cells.

Sarcomatoid Mesothelioma

Sarcomatoid mesothelioma is the least common cell type but most dangerous. Only 7-15% of all mesothelioma diagnoses have this histology.

Sarcomatoid cells spread quickly and are often not responsive to standard chemotherapy and other treatment. This usually leads to a poor prognosis for patients.

Mesothelioma Prognosis

Once a diagnosis has been confirmed, doctors will tell the patient their prognosis, which is their expected health outlook. The prognosis for mesothelioma is often poor, as most patients are diagnosed after their cancer has spread.

Two major components of a mesothelioma prognosis are life expectancy and survival rate.

  • Mesothelioma Life Expectancy: This varies widely depending on the location and cell type of the cancer. That said, the average lifespan after diagnosis is 12-21 months.
  • Survival Rates for Mesothelioma: The 5-year survival rate for pleural mesothelioma is 10%, which means that only 10% of patients will still be alive 5 years after diagnosis.

Mesothelioma Doctors

One of the best ways patients with mesothelioma can improve their prognosis is by getting specialized treatment from a mesothelioma doctor.

There are multiple specialists 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 their field.

Help for Veterans With Mesothelioma

Veterans with mesothelioma may have access to financial benefits and free 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.

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 directs thoracic surgery at the Boston VA West Roxbury campus.
  • West Los Angeles VA Medical Center: Dr. Robert Cameron treats veterans on the West Coast at this facility, which partners with UCLA’s Comprehensive Mesothelioma Program.

“The West LA VA [… has] pioneered the use of therapies such as immunotherapy and cryoablation, which have been recognized by other leading experts to have led to significant advances in the care of patients with this condition.”

– U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Mesothelioma Legal Compensation for Veterans

Mesothelioma treatment at a VA hospital is usually offered for free or a reduced rate for veterans and their families. However, veterans may also be eligible for various forms of legal compensation to help pay for treatments and other expenses.

One option is filing a lawsuit against the asbestos-containing product manufacturers at fault. A mesothelioma lawsuit is not filed against the U.S. military and will not affect a veteran’s VA benefits.

Did you know

On average, veterans receive $1 Million from mesothelioma settlements.

Another option is to seek payment from an asbestos trust fund that is currently active in the U.S. An estimated $30 Billion is available in these special trusts for veterans and civilians with mesothelioma.

Finding Support for Mesothelioma

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

Support Groups

Mesothelioma support groups can be an invaluable source of both comfort and practical advice, helping patients facing this cancer realize they’re not fighting alone. These groups can take place online, in-person, and over-the-phone.

Patients with mesothelioma or their loved ones can contact their cancer center to see if it hosts an in-person support group.

Additionally, organizations like the Meso Foundation have their own online support groups for patients and family members.


Patients with late-stage mesothelioma, where treatment is not an option, may benefit from hospice care. The goal of hospice care is not to cure the disease but to preserve the comfort and quality of life of the patient as much as possible during the time they have left.

Hospice care often includes support for the family as well, like counseling and bereavement services.

Financial Support

Three major financial support options exist for veterans with mesothelioma: VA benefits, asbestos trust funds, and lawsuit compensation.

Some veterans may be eligible for additional money through non-profit and government organizations. There are even resources that help with traveling to treatment centers.

Get our Free Veterans Packet to learn more about mesothelioma financial support.

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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