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

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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.

Medically edited and fact-checked by: Todd Gersten, MD, Double Board-Certified Oncologist and Hematologist

What Is Mesothelioma?

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

Mesothelioma can develop in the linings of the:

  • Lungs
  • Abdomen
  • Heart
  • Testicles

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.

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

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.

Common Symptoms of Mesothelioma

Common mesothelioma symptoms 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, 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.

Symptoms of Mesothelioma

We are proud to support veterans and loved ones battling mesothelioma.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed, get our Free Veterans Packet today.

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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 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.
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.

We are proud to support veterans and loved ones battling mesothelioma.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed, get our Free Veterans Packet today.

Get a Free Veterans Packet

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 malignant 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.

Diagnosed with Mesothelioma

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 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.


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.

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.

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.

Mesothelioma Treatments

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.

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?

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

We are proud to support veterans and loved ones battling mesothelioma.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed, get our Free Veterans Packet today.

Get a Free Veterans Packet

Common Questions About Mesothelioma

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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