What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium. This is a thin lining (membrane) that covers the outer surface of many organs in the body. It also lines the spaces (cavities) within the body, such as the chest and abdominal cavity.

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 tummy (abdomen) is called the peritoneum.

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

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

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Mesothelioma types

Mesothelioma in the chest is called pleural mesothelioma. Mesothelioma in the tummy 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 on types of mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma symptoms

Mesothelioma symptoms depend on whether it is in the pleura or peritoneum.

Causes of mesothelioma

The most common cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. 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 on 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. They may also ask if you have been exposed to asbestos in the past. Depending on the results of any tests, your GP may refer you to hospital for further tests.

You may need to have a number of different tests before your doctor can make a diagnosis.

Tests for pleural mesothelioma

You may have the following tests:

Tests for peritoneal mesothelioma

You may have the following tests:

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:

Staging of mesothelioma

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

We have more information about mesothelioma staging.

Treatment of mesothelioma

A team of specialists meet to talk about the best treatment for you. They are 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. We have more information about treatment for mesothelioma.

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

Treatment for peritoneal mesothelioma

Treatments may include:

Coping with advanced cancer

For some people with mesothelioma, the main aim of treatment is to control symptoms. The symptoms of pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma can be controlled in many ways.

Your cancer doctor, specialist nurse or GP can help you manage your symptoms. They may refer you to a palliative care team. These teams specialise in managing symptoms and giving emotional support to you and your family. Palliative care teams have specialist nurses who can sometimes visit you at home.

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

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.

Caring for someone with mesothelioma

If you are a family member or friend of someone who has mesothelioma, you may be caring for them. You may be very happy to do this, but there may be times when you need some extra support.

There are many health and social care professionals who can provide support for you and the person you are caring for. Tell your GP or nurse if you need extra support. You may also be able to get some financial help when caring for a loved one.

We have more information for caring for someone with mesothelioma.

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.

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. They can also arrange for you to see a physiotherapist if you need help with your mobility or advice on breathing exercises.

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.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our mesothelioma information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    Woolhouse I et al. British Thoracic Society Guideline for the investigation and management of malignant pleural mesothelioma. Thorax. 2018.

    Thomas A et al. Mesothelioma. BMJ Best Practice. 2019.

    Baas P et al. Malignant pleural mesothelioma: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up.  Annals of Oncology. 26 (Supplement 5): v31–v39. 2015. Available from: www.pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26223247

    Kusamara S et al. Peritoneal mesothelioma: PSOGI/EURACAN clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. European Journal of Surgical Oncology. March 2020.


  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr David Gilligan, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Reviewed: 01 March 2021
Reviewed: 01/03/2021
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Next review: 01 March 2024
Next review: 01/03/2024