Mesothelioma Cancer: Symptoms and Causes

Mesothelioma is linked to asbestos exposure. What are the causes and symptoms of this disease?

Mesothelioma is a fatal disease, almost always caused by exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma victims who sue almost always qualify for money damages when they can identify whose asbestos they worked around because courts have found clear legal liability on the part of companies that manufactured asbestos and, in some cases, used asbestos. Mesothelioma victims have a good chance in court since it's been proven that the asbestos industry hid the health dangers of working with asbestos for decades and, as a result, workers were needlessly exposed to asbestos, a serious carcinogen.

Mesothelioma gives people who worked with asbestos both serious medical and legal problems. Here's a quick overview of the medical issues caused by asbestos exposure. (To learn more about legal issues related to asbestos exposure and asbestos-related illnesses like mesothelioma, check out Nolo's article Asbestos and Mesothelioma Lawsuits: What to Expect.)

Symptoms of Mesothelioma

Pleural mesothelioma, the most common form of the disease, attacks the linings of the chest wall and lungs. Pleural mesothelioma can follow asbestosis, which is the scarring of lung tissue caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers, but mesothelioma often occurs alone.

There are other forms of malignant mesothelioma as well, including peritoneal mesothelioma, which attacks the lining of the abdomen.

Symptoms of mesothelioma often don't appear until 20, 30, or more years after asbestos exposure but, at some point, they appear as breathing problems or digestive problems. Breathing problems, including shortness of breath and coughing, are common symptoms of lung-based, or pleural, mesothelioma. Weight loss accompanied by abdominal pain, swelling, and bowel problems can be symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma. For in-depth information on the symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma and pleural mesothelioma, see the National Cancer Institute's website at

Causes of Mesothelioma

Exposure to asbestos in the workplace is the leading cause of mesothelioma. In particular, people who worked in the heating and construction businesses were likely to have been exposed to high levels of asbestos. However, the disease has surfaced in a small minority of individuals who had had no known asbestos exposure. Millions of Americans were exposed to free floating, airborne asbestos from nearby factories, ship building yards, and asbestos mines and mills that were in operation from the 1930s through the 1970s, which may account for some of these problems. In a number of instances, spouses or others who regularly handled and washed asbestos-ridden clothing have also contracted mesothelioma.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Mesothelioma is an ultimately fatal disease. But, especially if caught early, it can be treated and often slowed down significantly. About 20% of mesothelioma sufferers live five years or more, often considerably longer, although more than half die within 18 months of diagnosis. Depending on how early it's caught, mesothelioma treatment usually involves drugs, chemotherapy, radiation and, in some cases, surgery.

For more information on legal claims for asbestos exposure and tips on finding help with your case, read Nolo's articles Asbestos and Mesothelioma Lawsuits: What to Expect and How to Hire a Mesothelioma or Asbestos Lawyer.

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