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Mesothelioma Cancer Information: What Is Mesothelioma?

Simmons Mesothelioma Foundation

877-309-MESO (6376)


Mesothelioma Information

What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the internal organs, or the “mesothelium.” It most often starts in the lining of the lungs or the abdomen.

Mesothelioma, although rare compared to other cancers, still affects around 2,000-3,000 people per year in new diagnoses. Reported rates have risen in recent decades. Symptoms typically do not show until decades after the cause: the “latency period” is typically anywhere from 30 to 50 years. Malignant mesothelioma takes three biological forms depending on how its cells appear under a microscope.

  • Epitheloid: the most common; generally more favorable outlook
  • Sarcomatoid (fibrous): least common
  • Mixed (biphasic): a mixture of the two previous types

How do you get mesothelioma?

The biggest risk factor is working with asbestos. Asbestos refers to the group of minerals classified as having microscopic fibers that can separate and, when inhaled, invade the body’s organs with toxic effects. In addition to mesothelioma, there are two other major forms of asbestos-derived disease: asbestosis and lung cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, 70 to 80 percent of all cases of mesothelioma reported asbestos-exposure work histories. Asbestos occurs naturally, but is also mined and manufactured as a component of other industrial products, including insulation, brake linings and construction/building materials. Some of the people most at risk for asbestos exposure include:

  • Shipyard workers
  • Asbestos miners/mill workers
  • Producers of asbestos products
  • Heating/construction workers
  • Family members and others who live with asbestos workers (“take-home” exposure on clothing/hair)

How does mesothelioma cancer affect the body?

The two most common types of mesothelioma are found in the lung and abdominal areas. Cancer in the lining of the lungs is called pleural mesothelioma, while cancer of the lining of the abdomen is called peritoneal mesothelioma. Chest pain is typical of the former, while abdominal pain is typical in the latter. Other symptoms will also differ depending on the diagnosis.

It is important to see an experienced doctor for a proper diagnosis, and a mesothelioma specialist would be able to determine the difference between mesothelioma and other diseases that share common symptoms.

For more details, please visit the mesothelioma symptoms page.

See the National Cancer Institute's mesothelioma fact sheet for more details.


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