What is mesothelioma?

Cross section of chest and lungs

Mesothelioma (also known as ‘diffuse’ or ‘malignant’ mesothelioma) is a relatively rare form of cancer which affects the membraneous lining of the chest (the pleura) and, less commonly, the lining of the abdomen (the peritoneum). The disease can take 10 – 50 years (or even longer) to develop and is usually associated with asbestos exposure.

A small number of people develop mesothelioma without known exposure; this may be because it can be difficult to trace the exposure because of the huge time lapse before the disease develops. The period of exposure to asbestos may have been quite short but usually heavy and most commonly with blue asbestos – although other forms can also cause mesothelioma.

How is mesothelioma diagnosed?

Early diagnosis of mesothelioma is difficult and, in most cases, the first obvious sign of something being wrong is when an ‘effusion’ occurs. This is an accumulation of fluid which gathers in the pleural space around the lung (or peritoneal space in the abdomen). This often causes breathlessness and the doctor can draw or drain the fluid off to relieve this symptom.

On chest X-rays the signs are often not very definite and may possibly only show a slight thickening of the pleura. it may be necessary for several tests and biopsies to confirm the diagnosis – and this may take a few weeks.

Did you know?

  • Someone dies every five hours from mesothelioma in the UK
  • Mesothelioma is preventable… the only known cause is exposure to asbestos
  • There are 33% more deaths from mesothelioma than from cervical cancer
  • Deaths from mesothelioma have increased ten-fold since 1968 in the UK
  • There will be over a million deaths in western Europe by 2035
  • The disease can take up to 60 years to develop following exposure to asbestos
  • The greatest risk group are men born between 1945 and 1950