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7-minute read

Key facts

  • Mesothelioma is a cancer caused mainly by exposure to asbestos.
  • There are 2 main types of mesothelioma — pleural and peritoneal.
  • Treatment may involve chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunotherapy and sometimes surgery.

What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.

Australia has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world. This is because of our high use of asbestos in the past. Asbestos is now banned in Australia. However, the number of Australians with mesothelioma is growing. This is because the disease can take decades to develop.

What are the types of mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma grows in the mesothelial cells. These are cells that are found in the membranes that are around most organs in the body. There are 2 main types of mesothelioma:

  • Pleural mesothelioma — this type develops in the lining of your lungs (called the ‘pleura’). It is the most common form of mesothelioma. It makes up about 9 out of 10 cases. It is different from lung cancer.
  • Peritoneal mesothelioma — this type develops in the lining of your abdomen (tummy).

Sometimes, mesothelioma can develop in the lining of the heart. Sometimes it can be in the membrane around the testicles.

The only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. It can take just a tiny amount of asbestos to cause mesothelioma. The disease may take 20 to 60 years to develop.

What are the symptoms of mesothelioma?

Pleural mesothelioma

Pleural mesothelioma has symptoms that include:

  • shortness of breath (worse when active or lying down)
  • chest pain, or pain in the shoulder or upper arm
  • weight loss or appetite loss
  • a cough that doesn’t go away
  • night sweats
  • extra sensitive skin

Mesothelioma can cause fluid to build up in the space around your lungs. This is called a pleural effusion.

Peritoneal mesothelioma

Peritoneal mesothelioma has symptoms that include:

Fluid can also build up in your tummy. This is called peritoneal effusion, or ascites. The fluid build-up can cause swelling and pain.

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How is mesothelioma diagnosed?

Mesothelioma can be quite hard to diagnose. That’s because it can look like other types of cancer.

If your doctor suspects mesothelioma, they will order a range of tests. Then they will combine all the information to make a firm diagnosis.

The tests could include:

  • Blood tests.
  • Biopsies — where a small sample of tissue is taken and sent to a laboratory to be examined under a microscope.
  • X-rays or other scans to look for problems in the lungs, thickening of the pleura, or fluid between the lungs and wall of the chest.
  • A CT scan or other scans to see if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
  • Examining any fluid that has been removed from the space around your lungs or inside your abdomen.

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How is mesothelioma treated?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for mesothelioma. It is often not diagnosed until it is quite advanced. Treatment is designed to reduce symptoms. Treatment can your improve quality of life.

Depending on how advanced the disease is, you might have chemotherapy or radiotherapy. This treatment can destroy the cancer cells.

You could have surgery to remove the tumour. Sometimes surgery is done to remove the pleura or the diaphragm or part of the lining of the heart.

Treatment to drain fluid from the lungs, or from the abdomen can help control breathlessness and pain. Some people have a drain (a small tube) inserted to allow fluid to be removed regularly.

Living with mesothelioma

There is no cure for mesothelioma. If you have the disease, you might have periods when you are quite healthy. At other times, you will need treatment to control symptoms.

Some Australian hospitals specialise in treating mesothelioma. New treatments are also being developed all the time. Talk to your doctor about being part of a clinical trial.

In Australia, people who develop mesothelioma and their families may be entitled to compensation. If you were diagnosed after 1 July 2010, consider providing information to the Australian Mesothelioma Registry (AMR). The AMR will help the government make policies to prevent others from getting mesothelioma in future.

It is also a good idea to seek support. The Lung Foundation Australia offers a support service. It connects patients and their families with support nurses and social workers.

Can mesothelioma be prevented?

Reducing your exposure to asbestos, both at work or at home, lowers your risk of mesothelioma.

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Last reviewed: October 2023

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