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Pleural mesothelioma is of two kinds: (1) diffuse and malignant (cancerous), and (2) localized and benign (non-cancerous.)

Benign mesothelioma can often be removed surgically, are generally not life-threatening, and are not usually related to asbestos exposure. Malignant mesothelioma, however, are very serious. Fortunately, they are rare - about two thousand people are diagnosed with mesothelioma in the U.S. each year.

The remainder of this section is about diffuse malignant pleural mesothelioma.

Pleural mesothelioma is a cancer of the cells that make up the pleura or lining around the outside of the lungs and inside of the ribs. Its only known cause in the U.S. is previous exposure to asbestos fibers, including chrysotile, amosite or crocidolite. This exposure is likely to have happened twenty or more years before the disease becomes evident, since it takes many years for the disease to "incubate." It is the most common type of mesothelioma, accounting for about 75% of all cases.

Mesothelioma is sometimes diagnosed by coincidence, before there are any symptoms. For instance, tumors have been discovered through routine chest x-rays. However, when symptoms occur, they may include shortness of breath, weakness, weight loss, loss of appetite, chest pains, lower back pains, persistent coughing, difficulty in swallowing, alone or in combination. An initial medical examination often shows a pleural effusion, which means an accumulation of fluid in the pleural space - the area between the lungs and the chest wall.

The first step in detecting pleural mesothelioma is, typically, a chest x-ray or CT scan. This is often followed by a bronchoscopy, using a viewing scope to look inside the lungs.

The actual diagnosis usually requires obtaining a piece of tissue through a biopsy. This could be a needle biopsy, an open biopsy, or through a tube with a camera (thoracoscopy or chest scope.) If an abnormality is seen through the camera then a tissue sample can be taken at the same time, using the same tube. This is a hospital procedure that requires anesthesia, but is not usually painful. The tissue sample is tested by a pathologist.

Fluid build-up from the pleural effusion can generally be seen on a chest x-ray and heard during a physical examination, but a firm diagnosis of mesothelioma can only be made through a biopsy and pathological testing. This is important because there are also benign pleural effusions and other tumors that have a similar appearance to mesothelioma. Diagnosing mesothelioma can be quite difficult; it requires special lab stains, and much experience in understanding them.

The spread of the tumor over the pleura causes pleural thickening. This can reduce the flexibility of the pleura and encase the lungs in an increasingly restrictive girdle. With the lungs restricted, they get smaller and less functional, and breathing becomes more difficult. At first a person with mesothelioma may be breathless only when he or she exercises, but as lung function drops, he or she can become short of breath even while resting.

The tumor spreads by direct invasion of surrounding tissue. As it spreads inward it can compress the lungs. As the tumor spreads outward it can invade the chest wall and ribs, and this can be extremely painful.

Current medical science does not know exactly how and why, at a cellular level, asbestos fibers cause mesothelial cells to become abnormal (malignant or cancerous.) Thus it is not known whether only one fiber causes the tumor or whether it takes many fibers. It seems that asbestos fibers in the pleura can start a tumor as well as promote its growth; the tumor does not depend on any other processes for its development.

There is as yet no known cure for malignant mesothelioma. The prognosis depends on various factors, including the size and stage of the tumor, the extent of the tumor, the cell type, and whether or not the tumor responds to treatment. KMESA has represented many clients who lived for five to ten years after diagnosis, most of them in good health for a majority of those years. Some mesothelioma victims succumb within a few months; the average survival time is about a year.

The treatment options for people with mesothelioma have improved significantly, especially for those whose cancer is diagnosed early and treated vigorously. Many people are treated with a combination of therapies, sometimes known as multimodal therapy.

Specific types of treatment include:

  • Chemotherapy and other drug-based therapies
  • Radiation therapy
  • Surgery and
  • Intra-operative photodynamic therapy

There are also experimental treatments like gene therapy and immunotherapy, angiogenesis inhibitors, and clinical trials for various new treatments and combinations of treatments.

Treatments that reduce pain and improve lung function, are becoming more successful (although they cannot cure mesothelioma.) Pain control medications have become easier to administer. Debulking is a surgical process of removing a substantial part of the tumor and reducing the pleural thickening; this can provide significant relief. X-ray therapy has also been successfully used to control the tumor and the pain associated with it for a while.

Mesothelioma (benign-fibrous)

Definition: A noncancerous tumor of the pleura (lining of the lung and chest cavity).

Causes, incidence, and risk factors:

Nonmalignant mesothelioma is usually a localized tumor that affects men more frequently than women. The tumor may grow to a large size and compress the lung, causing the symptoms of shortness of breath.


  • chronic cough
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain

Signs and tests:

A physical examination reveals the clubbed appearance of the fingers.

Tests that may show benign mesothelioma:

  • chest X-ray
  • CT scan of the chest
  • open lung biopsy


  • Surgery is indicated for a solitary tumor.

Expectations (prognosis):

  • The outcome is expected to be good with prompt treatment.


  • Pleural effusion (fluid escaping into the membranes around the lungs) is a complication.

Calling your health care provider:

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you notice a chroniccough or other signs of mesothelioma.


  • There is no known prevention for this very rare disorder.






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