What Is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that's almost always caused by exposure to asbestos.

Updated by , J.D. University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated 12/08/2023

Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that's almost always caused by exposure to asbestos. In this article, we'll cover:

  • the basics of mesothelioma, including symptoms
  • causes of mesothelioma, and
  • the importance of an accurate diagnosis to the asbestos-mesothelioma lawsuit process.

Mesothelioma Basics and Symptoms

Mesothelioma is a cancerous growth that attacks the linings of the chest wall, lungs, and abdomen. Pleural mesothelioma, the most common form of the disease, occurs in the chest and lungs, and can follow or occur alongside asbestosis, which is the scarring of lung tissue caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers, but mesothelioma often occurs alone. The other most common form of malignant mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma, attacks the lining of the abdomen.

Symptoms of mesothelioma often don't show up until 20 or more years after asbestos exposure but, at some point signs of the disease typically appear as:

  • chest pain
  • lower back pain
  • abdominal pain
  • trouble breathing
  • fever
  • coughing up blood
  • trouble swallowing, or
  • hoarse voice.

Taken individually, the symptoms outlined above don't necessarily indicate mesothelioma. They could be related to a much less serious condition, or they may not point to any health problem at all. But since these symptoms could be cause for concern, especially in people who have worked around asbestos for long periods of time, your doctor will likely want to perform a number of diagnostic exams, including x-rays and pulmonary function tests.

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 decades ago may have been exposed to high levels of asbestos. The disease has also 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-tainted clothing have also contracted mesothelioma, and many have brought so-called "secondary exposure" asbestos lawsuits.

More recently, samples of talc products like baby powder have been found to contain measurable levels of asbestos, and manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson are facing thousands of lawsuits alleging a link between talc products and cancer, including mesothelioma and ovarian cancer.

Mesothelioma is an ultimately fatal disease. But, especially if caught early, it can be treated and slowed 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.

Diagnosis Is Critical In an Asbestos-Mesothelioma Case

In any personal injury case, including lawsuits over mesothelioma and asbestos exposure, the specifics of the plaintiff's health problems are critical to shaping the impact of the injury or illness, and it starts with an accurate diagnosis.

Diagnosis goes straight to the nature and extent of the plaintiff's damages, which includes all compensable losses—both "economic" damages like cost of future medical treatment and lost income, and "non-economic" damages like pain and suffering.

Learn more about what to expect in an asbestos-mesothelioma lawsuit, and get tips on finding the right asbestos-mesothelioma lawyer.

Talk to a Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
Get Professional Help

Talk to an attorney.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you