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About Mesothelioma

  • What is Mesothelioma?

    Malignant mesothelioma is a disease in which cancer cells first arise from one of the body’s linings, most often the pleura (the thin layer of tissue that lines the chest cavity and covers the lungs) and sometimes the peritoneum (the thin layer of tissue that lines the abdominal cavity).

    Mesothelioma destroys the pleura that surround your chest cavity; once this happens, your air sacs are also vulnerable. Mesothelioma, like any cancer, can also spread (metastasize) to other parts of your lungs or to other organs of your body.

    PDQ image - Anatomy of the respiratory system, showing the trachea and both lungs and their lobes and airways

    At Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center, our dedicated thoracic team of radiologists, pathologists, medical oncologists, surgeons, and radiation oncologists work together to determine:

    1. Whether you have cancer at all (there are other disorders that can look like cancer but have very different treatments and outcomes);
    2. What type of cancer you have;
    3. What set of treatments are likely to be most effective for your individual cancer.

    Risk Factors for Mesothelioma

    Exposure to asbestos can affect your risk of developing malignant mesothelioma. The increased incidence of mesothelioma has been closely linked to the rise of the asbestos industry and the use of asbestos in fireproofing and insulation. Men are typically affected more, due to the common presence of asbestos in industrial settings. Family members of workers who have been exposed to asbestos are also at increased risk of developing mesothelioma.

    After being exposed to asbestos, it usually takes a long time — between 10 and 40 years — for signs of mesothelioma to occur.

    Symptoms of Mesothelioma

    In the early stages of the disease, symptoms may be subtle. Some patients may not have any significant symptoms at all. In the asymptomatic patient, a small buildup of fluid between the lining of the lung and the chest cavity, called pleural effusion, may be present. Symptoms of early mesothelioma may include a cough and shortness of breath.

    Fatigue, weakness and weight loss typically occur later. Pain is also common. Mesothelioma sufferers may begin to display breathing difficulty, fever, trouble swallowing, and swelling of the face and neck. Some patients may develop a rasping voice and start coughing up blood.

    Consult your doctor if any of the following problems occur:

    • Trouble breathing
    • Pain under the rib cage
    • Pain or swelling in the abdomen
    • Lumps in the abdomen
    • Weight loss for no known reason

    Find out more about mesothelioma from the Division of Thoracic Surgery at Brigham and Women's Hospital.