What is mesothelioma?

In the UK, more than 2,700 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year.

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium. This is a thin lining (membrane) that covers the outer surface of many of our organs. The mesothelium has different names depending on where it is in the body. For example:

  • the mesothelium in the chest is called the pleura
  • the mesothelium the abdomen is called the peritoneum.

Cancer of the mesothelium is called malignant mesothelioma. But it is usually known as mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma types

Mesothelioma in the chest is called pleural mesothelioma. Mesothelioma in the abdomen is called peritoneal mesothelioma. Pleural mesothelioma is much more common than peritoneal mesothelioma. Very rarely, mesothelioma may develop in the outer lining of other organs.

We have more information about types of mesothelioma.

Cell types of mesothelioma

Pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma can be grouped according to how the cells look under a microscope. There are three main types:

  • epithelioid – this is the most common
  • sarcomatoid (fibrous)
  • mixed (biphasic) – this has both epithelioid and sarcomatoid cells.

Knowing the type of cell involved may give your doctors an idea of how well the mesothelioma will respond to treatment.

Mesothelioma symptoms

The symptoms of mesothelioma vary depending on whether it is in the pleura or peritoneum.

Mesothelioma causes

Asbestos is the most common cause of mesothelioma. Over 9 out of 10 cases of mesothelioma (90%) are caused by exposure to asbestos fibres. Asbestos is a natural mineral found in many countries.

We have more information about asbestos and other causes of mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma diagnosis

You usually begin by seeing your GP. They will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. You may have blood tests and a chest x-ray, particularly if you have a history of asbestos exposure.

Depending on the results of any tests, your GP may refer you to hospital for further tests and specialist advice and treatment. At the hospital, the specialist will ask you about your general health and any previous medical problems.

The specialist may ask if it is possible that you have been exposed to asbestos in the past, such as in jobs you have had or places you have worked. This is called your occupational history. They may also ask if anyone in your family worked with asbestos. It usually takes a long time for mesothelioma to develop after exposure to asbestos, so you may have to think far back to your childhood or early working years.

Tests and diagnosis for pleural mesothelioma

You may need to have a number of different tests before your doctors can make an accurate diagnosis. You may have:

Your doctor or nurse will tell you about the most suitable tests for you and what they involve.

Tests and diagnosis for peritoneal mesothelioma

You may have a number of different tests to help diagnose peritoneal mesothelioma:

We have more information about diagnosing mesothelioma.

You may get anxious between appointments. This is natural. It may help to get support from family, friends or a support organisation.

Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:

Stages of mesothelioma

The stage of a cancer refers to its size and whether it has spread beyond the area of the body where it first started. Knowing the extent of the cancer helps the doctors decide on the most appropriate treatment for you.

We have more information about mesothelioma staging.

Treatment of mesothelioma

A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).

Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the different treatments and their side effects. They will also talk to you about the things you should consider when making treatment decisions.

Pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma are treated in different ways. For both types you may have treatments to help control symptoms. You may have treatment as part of a clinical trial.

Treatment for pleural mesothelioma

You may have:

Treatment for peritoneal mesothelioma

You may have:

Coping with advanced cancer

For most people with mesothelioma, the main aim of treatment is to control symptoms.

There are many different treatments that can help to control the symptoms of pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma.

There are also many different people who can help you manage your symptoms, including your:

  • hospital consultant
  • nurse specialist
  • GP.

They may suggest referring you to a palliative care team. These teams specialise in managing symptoms and giving emotional support to you and your family. Many palliative care teams have specialist nurses who can visit you at home.

We have more information about advanced cancer and how to cope if treatment is no longer working. We also have information for carers.

Who can help?

Many people are available to help you and your family. If you think you need extra help at home, tell the doctors or nurses looking after you. They can look at your needs and organise extra support. We have more information about care and support for people with advanced cancer.

After mesothelioma treatment

After your treatment has finished, your hospital doctor, GP or specialist nurse will arrange for you to have regular check-ups. They will continue to monitor your symptoms and check if you need any more treatments to help control them. If you have any problems or notice any new symptoms between check-ups, let your doctor know as soon as possible.

Mesothelioma compensation

Most people who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma are able to receive financial help. This may be through compensation from an employer, or government benefits, such as industrial injuries disablement benefit. It is important to get advice from a specialist solicitor.

We have more information about compensation and benefits for people with mesothelioma, including how to find a solicitor.

Reviewed: 30 March 2018
Reviewed: 30/03/2018
Next review: 30 September 2020
Next review: 30/09/2020

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.