What is mesothelioma?
What causes mesothelioma?
What are the symptoms of mesothelioma?
How is mesothelioma diagnosed?
What is the treatment for mesothelioma?
What is the future plan if I have mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer that develops in the tissue that lines the organs, such as the lungs, called the mesothelium.

What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer. The cancer develops in the mesothelium, a very thin, tissue-like layer of cells that covers and protects organs in the body.

Mesothelioma can develop in three locations:

  • Pleura – the lining of the lungs (most common)
  • Pericardium – the lining of the heart
  • Peritoneum – the lining of the abdominal cavity.

When mesothelioma develops in the pleura, the cells thicken and press on the lung. As a result, the lungs can’t expand when you take a breath.

The image below illustrates mesothelioma. (Click image to enlarge)


What causes mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is caused by asbestos exposure in more than 90% of cases. The cancer develops many decades after a person first comes into contact with asbestos.

Asbestos is a fibrous silicate which naturally occurs in the environment and is mined in several countries world wide. Being resistant to heat, fire and electricity, asbestos was ideal for use in building, construction and insulation. Asbestos was widely used in Australia from around 1940 to 1987. Researchers discovered that the material was toxic in the 1960's. As a result, asbestos is now banned nation-wide and in many countries of the world.

Asbestos contains microscopic fibres that can enter the air. People working with asbestos can inhale or swallow these fibres. The inhaled fibres get trapped in the lungs, causing scarring and stiffening. This lung damage eventually causes tumours (abnormal cells) to develop.

Because asbestos use was extremely common in Australia for decades, we have one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world.

What are the symptoms of mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma symptoms show if a tumour has resulted from asbestos exposure, grown and spread. It can take 20 to 50 years for mesothelioma to appear after first being exposed to asbestos. As a result, most people with mesothelioma are aged 60 and over. The period of time from exposure to development of disease is called the latency period.

The first symptoms of mesothelioma are:

  • A stabbing-like pain in the chest, ribs or shoulder that gets worse if you breathe deeply
  • Appetite loss
  • Breathlessness that is worse after exercise or when lying down
  • Change in skin sensation
  • Low energy
  • Night sweats
  • Ongoing cough
  • Weight loss.

How is mesothelioma diagnosed?

Mesothelioma is notoriously difficult to diagnose, because mesothelioma symptoms are like those caused by many forms of lung disease.

Your doctor will need to take several tests and rule out other conditions.

Tests you may need include:

  • Blood tests – mesothelioma can release proteins in the blood which can then be found on blood tests
  • Chest X Ray – an X-ray can show signs of mesothelioma, such as fluid in the lungs
  • CT or PET scan – these scans can detect some types of tumours and changes in the lungs
  • Complete medical history – let your doctor know if you may have been exposed to asbestos in the past
  • Lung biopsy – a small sample of lung tissue is removed and tested.

What is the treatment for mesothelioma?

There are many different treatment options for mesothelioma. Your doctor will determine the most suitable treatment for you based on your individual health and the severity of your condition.

You may need one or more of the following treatments: 

  • Chemotherapy – medication that shrinks tumours and destroys cancer cells, chemotherapy is a common treatment for mesothelioma; side effects can occur, so speak to your doctor
  • Immunotherapy – a novel treatment that is currently being trialled; immunotherapy aims to treat cancer by targeting the immune system
  • Radiation therapy – this treatment uses radiation to manage pain and reduce the risk of the cancer returning; radiation therapy is often combined with other treatments like chemotherapy and surgery
  • Surgery – if the cancer has not spread and you are relatively fit, you may be able to have surgery to remove the mesothelioma.

People with mesothelioma usually need to have a combination of treatments, as research suggests that this approach may help to improve survival rates. Usually, you’ll be cared for by a multidisciplinary team, which is a range of health professionals with different speciality areas.

For some people with advanced mesothelioma, the treatment goal is to reduce pain and improve quality of life. This is known as palliative care.

What is the future plan if I have mesothelioma?

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you do not have to go through this alone. There is support available to help you navigate this challenging and complex time.

At St Vincent’s Hospital, we can help you find resources and programs, and connect you with other people who are also living with mesothelioma. Speak to your medical team if you’d like to know more about this.

To manage your health moving forward, you will be given a personalised care plan which will include a range of strategies and treatments. Your medical team will monitor your progress and adjust your plan as your symptoms change.

Living with mesothelioma, or any type of cancer, is not easy. It’s normal to feel anxious, sad, depressed, worried and confused. You may find it difficult to maintain your relationships and emotions.

Take time processing the information you’re given and learn all you can about your condition. Speaking with a health professional about your feelings can help, so talk to your doctor about a referral to a psychologist or counsellor.

As well, you’ll need to look after your physical health. Regular exercise, sleep and proper nutrition are essential for people with mesothelioma. Ask your doctor about the safest way to stay active. Your doctor can refer you to a dietitian who can help you learn about the best foods to eat and how to develop a healthy eating routine.

There are a range of complementary therapies that can support your treatment plan, such as massage and acupuncture. Your doctor can tell you more about these. It’s important that you don’t take any treatments or medications without speaking to your doctor first, as some medications may affect your treatments.

If you have been exposed to asbestos in the past and are concerned about mesothelioma, make an appointment with your doctor. An early diagnosis and treatment could help to give you a better outcome.