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Malignant Mesothelioma Treatment (PDQ®)

  • Last Modified: 12/12/2013

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General Information About Malignant Mesothelioma



Malignant mesothelioma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the lining of the chest or abdomen.

Malignant mesothelioma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells are found in the pleura (the thin layer of tissue that lines the chest cavity and covers the lungs) or the peritoneum (the thin layer of tissue that lines the abdomen and covers most of the organs in the abdomen). This summary is about malignant mesothelioma of the pleura.

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Respiratory anatomy; drawing shows right lung with upper, middle, and lower lobes; left lung with upper and lower lobes; and the trachea, bronchi, lymph nodes, and diaphragm. Inset shows bronchioles, alveoli, artery, and vein.
Anatomy of the respiratory system, showing the trachea and both lungs and their lobes and airways. Lymph nodes and the diaphragm are also shown. Oxygen is inhaled into the lungs and passes through the thin membranes of the alveoli and into the bloodstream (see inset).


Being exposed to asbestos can affect the risk of malignant mesothelioma.

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Talk to your doctor if you think you may be at risk.

Many people with malignant mesothelioma have worked or lived in places where they inhaled or swallowed asbestos. After being exposed to asbestos, it usually takes a long time for malignant mesothelioma to form. Other risk factors for malignant mesothelioma include the following:

  • Living with a person who works near asbestos.
  • Being exposed to a certain virus.

Possible signs of malignant mesothelioma include shortness of breath and pain under the rib cage.

Sometimes the cancer causes fluid to collect around the lung or in the abdomen. These symptoms may be caused by the fluid or malignant mesothelioma. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following problems:

  • Trouble breathing.
  • Pain under the rib cage.
  • Pain or swelling in the abdomen.
  • Lumps in the abdomen.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.

Tests that examine the inside of the chest and abdomen are used to detect (find) and diagnose malignant mesothelioma.

Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between malignant mesothelioma and lung cancer. The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history : An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits, exposure to asbestos, past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.

  • Chest x-ray : An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
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    Chest x-ray; drawing shows the patient standing with her back to the x-ray machine.  X-rays are used to take pictures of organs and bones of the chest.  X-rays pass through the patient onto film.
    X-ray of the chest. X-rays are used to take pictures of organs and bones of the chest. X-rays pass through the patient onto film.

  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of the chest and abdomen, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.

  • Biopsy : The removal of cells or tissues from the pleura or peritoneum so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer.

    Procedures used to collect the cells or tissues include the following:

    • Fine-needle (FNA) aspiration biopsy of the lung: The removal of tissue or fluid using a thin needle. An imaging procedure is used to locate the abnormal tissue or fluid in the lung. A small incision may be made in the skin where the biopsy needle is inserted into the abnormal tissue or fluid, and a sample is removed.
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      Lung biopsy; drawing shows a patient lying on a table that slides through the computed tomography (CT) machine with an x-ray picture of a cross-section of the lung on a monitor above the patient. Drawing also shows a doctor using the x-ray picture to help place the biopsy needle through the chest wall and into the area of abnormal lung tissue. Inset shows a side view of the chest cavity and lungs with the biopsy needle inserted into the area of abnormal tissue.
      Fine-Needle Aspiration Biopsy of the Lung. The patient lies on a table that slides through the computed tomography (CT) machine, which takes x-ray pictures of the inside of the body. The x-ray pictures help the doctor see where the abnormal tissue is in the lung. A biopsy needle is inserted through the chest wall and into the area of abnormal lung tissue. A small piece of tissue is removed through the needle and checked under the microscope for signs of cancer.

    • Thoracoscopy : An incision (cut) is made between two ribs and a thoracoscope (a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing) is inserted into the chest.

    • Thoracotomy : An incision (cut) is made between two ribs to check inside the chest for signs of disease.

    • Peritoneoscopy: An incision (cut) is made in the abdominal wall and a peritoneoscope (a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing) is inserted into the abdomen.

    • Laparotomy : An incision (cut) is made in the wall of the abdomen to check the inside of the abdomen for signs of disease.

    • Open biopsy : A procedure in which an incision (cut) is made through the skin to expose and remove tissues to check for signs of disease.

  • Cytologic exam: An exam of cells under a microscope (by a pathologist) to check for anything abnormal. For mesothelioma, fluid is taken from around the lungs or from the abdomen. A pathologist checks the cells in the fluid.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer.
  • The size of the tumor.
  • Whether the tumor can be removed completely by surgery.
  • The amount of fluid in the chest or abdomen.
  • The patient's age and general health, including lung and heart health.
  • The type of mesothelioma cancer cells and how they look under a microscope.
  • Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back).