Health A to Z
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that develops in the lining that covers the outer surface of some of the body's organs. It's usually linked to asbestos exposure.
Mesothelioma mainly affects the lining of the lungs (pleural mesothelioma), although it can also affect the lining of the tummy (peritoneal mesothelioma), heart or testicles.
More than 2,600 people are diagnosed with the condition each year in the UK. Most cases are diagnosed in people aged 60-80 and men are affected more commonly than women.
Unfortunately it's rarely possible to cure mesothelioma, although treatment can help control the symptoms.
This page covers:
The symptoms of mesothelioma tend to develop gradually over time. They typically don't appear until several decades after exposure to asbestos.
Symptoms of mesothelioma in the lining of the lungs include:
Symptoms of mesothelioma in the lining of the tummy include:
See your GP if you have any persistent or worrying symptoms. Tell them about any exposure to asbestos you may have had in the past.
Mesothelioma is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos, a group of minerals made of microscopic fibres that used to be widely used in construction.
These tiny fibres can easily get in the lungs, where they get stuck, damaging the lungs over time. It usually takes a while for this to cause any obvious problems, with mesothelioma typically developing more than 20 years after exposure to asbestos.
The use of asbestos was completely banned in 1999, so the risk of exposure is much lower nowadays. However, materials containing asbestos are still found in many older buildings.
If your GP suspects mesothelioma, they will refer you to a hospital specialist for some tests.
A number of different tests may need to be carried out, including:
These tests can help diagnose mesothelioma and show how far it has spread.
The best treatment for mesothelioma depends on several factors, including how far the cancer has spread and your general health.
As mesothelioma is often diagnosed at an advanced stage, treatment is usually focused on controlling the symptoms and prolonging life for as long as possible. This is known as palliative or supportive care.
Possible treatments include:
You'll also probably have treatment for your individual symptoms to help you feel as comfortable as possible. For example, regularly draining fluid from your chest may help your breathing and strong painkillers may help relieve your pain.
Sometimes, a procedure is carried out to stop the fluid coming back again by making the outside of the lungs stick to the inside of your chest (pleurodesis), or a tube is put in your chest to drain the fluid regularly at home. Your doctors should discuss these treatments with you.
Unfortunately the outlook for mesothelioma tends to be poor. This is because it doesn't usually cause any obvious symptoms until late on and it can progress quite quickly once it reaches this stage.
There are currently around 2,500 deaths from mesothelioma each year in the UK.
If you'd like to find out more about mesothelioma, the following organisations can provide further information, advice and support: