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 mesothelioma, including disability and VA health care.

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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. It is typically caused when asbestos fibers get stuck in the linings of major organs.

Mesothelioma can develop in the linings of the:

Most cases of mesothelioma 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.

Mesothelioma Causes

The only known cause of malignant mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a mineral that was 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 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.
Learn About Mesothelioma Causes
Mesothelioma Causes

Types of Mesothelioma

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.

Mesothelioma is also broken down by cell types. Mesothelioma cell type refers to the different cells that form the tumor(s). There are 3 main mesothelioma cell types: epithelioid, sarcomatoid, and biphasic.

What cell type a patient has greatly affects their health outlook, as some cells grow and spread more rapidly than others.

Learn about mesothelioma types by location below.

Testicular Mesothelioma

  • 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

Mesothelioma Symptoms

In many cases, common symptoms of mesothelioma like a cough or shortness of breath start out mild and mimic signs of more common health problems like bronchitis, flu, or pneumonia.

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.

Common Symptoms of Mesothelioma

Common symptoms of mesothelioma include:

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

Mesothelioma Stages

Mesothelioma stages allow doctors to note how far the cancer has spread through the body.

The most common staging system used for mesothelioma is the Tumor Node Metastasis (TNM) system. This system includes 4 stages of pleural mesothelioma.

Those diagnosed in the early stages typically have a better health outlook. In the later stages, the cancer spreads through the body and becomes harder to treat in a process known as metastasis.

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.

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 for them.

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 radiological scans for mesothelioma include:

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

Although imaging tests are an important first step in identifying any 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.

Mesothelioma Radiology Scans


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

A biopsy involves collecting a fluid and/or tissue sample of the affected area. The sample is then sent to a lab and analyzed to see if there are cancer cells present, and if so, what type.

Once a cancer doctor (oncologist) 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. 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.

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.

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 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 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.

Clinical Trials

Mesothelioma clinical trials can provide patients with 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.

Clinical Trials
Learn About Mesothelioma Treatment Options

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

Financial benefits like disability compensation provide veterans with over $3,000 a 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 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. It is partnered with UCLA’s Comprehensive Mesothelioma Program.
Mesothelioma Treatment at VA Hospitals

Finding Support for Mesothelioma

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

The Mesothelioma Veterans Center is proud to support veterans and loved ones battling this rare cancer. If you or someone you love has been diagnosed, get our Free Veterans Packet today. See what steps to take after being diagnosed.

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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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