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While many tumors have clear, defined edges, mesothelioma does not. Instead, it can surround organs and fill in the chest and abdominal cavity, compressing the lungs.
Mesothelioma usually is caused by past exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that in the past was used in several industries. These include construction, automotive, military, marine and manufacturing.
When tiny particles of asbestos are made or disturbed, they can float in the air. People then can breathe in or swallow the asbestos.
Asbestos fibers can remain in the body for decades. In some cases, these fibers cause genetic changes to mesothelial cells, leading to mesothelioma. The disease typically occurs 30 to 50 years after a person has come in contact with asbestos. Often patients will not be aware of this past asbestos exposure.
Asbestos can cause serious health conditions other than mesothelioma. These include cancers of the lung, larynx and kidney. It also can cause asbestosis, a non-cancerous, chronic lung disease.
Types of mesothelioma
Most cases of mesothelioma start in the pleura. This type of mesothelioma also is called malignant pleural mesothelioma.
A rarer type of mesothelioma starts in the abdomen and is called malignant peritoneal mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is also categorized by the type of mesothelial cells where the disease starts. These types of mesothelioma are:
- Epithelioid: This accounts for 60% to 70% of mesothelioma cases. It usually has the best outcomes.
- Sarcomatoid: About 10% to 15% of cases are sarcomatoid mesothelioma. It is more aggressive than epithelioid mesothelioma.
- Biphasic or mixed: This type of mesothelioma has both epitheliod and sarcomatoid cells. Between 10% and 15% of cases fall into this category. This is an extremely aggressive form of the disease.
Mesothelioma risk factors
Anything that increases your chance of getting mesothelioma is a risk factor. The risk factors for mesothelioma are:
Asbestos exposure: Asbestos exposure accounts for most cases of mesothelioma. Exposure usually occurred decades before the disease is diagnosed.
Gender: Mesothelioma is more common in men. This is likely due to more men than women working in industries that frequently used asbestos, such as construction and manufacturing.
Genetic changes: A small percentage of mesothelioma cases are connected to a mutation in the BAP1 gene. Doctors believe this mutation increases the chances of developing mesothelioma in those who are exposed to asbestos.
Radiation exposure: People who have received radiation for other cancers may later develop mesothelioma. This is not a major risk factor, and the benefits of radiation therapy as a cancer treatment far outweigh the risks.
Not everyone with risk factors gets mesothelioma. However, if you have been exposed to asbestos, it’s a good idea to tell your doctor.
In rare cases, mesothelioma can be passed down from one generation to the next. Genetic counseling may be right for you. Visit our genetic testing page to learn more.
Learn more about mesothelioma:
Why choose MD Anderson for mesothelioma treatment?
Mesothelioma is both rare and serious. With just a few thousand cases diagnosed in the United States each year, it is important to find a team with experience treating this disease.
At MD Anderson, you will be cared for by a team of doctors and other care providers with special expertise in treating mesothelioma. This team includes medical oncologists, surgeons, radiation oncologists, pulmonologists, pathologists and more. All are experts in their fields and in mesothelioma. They work together closely to customize the best treatment for you.
As a top-ranked cancer center, MD Anderson's researchers are pioneering remarkable advances to give you the best chance for fighting mesothelioma. These include:
- Immunotherapy drugs designed to recruit the body’s own immune system in the fight against mesothelioma.
- Advanced surgical techniques that can improve outcomes while shortening hospital stays and recovery times.
- Targeted radiation therapy that focuses on cancer cells while minimizing damage to healthy nearby tissue.
Many clinical trials at MD Anderson are not available at other cancer centers. In fact, we offer clinical trials for patients at all stages of mesothelioma, including treatments for mesothelioma in its early stages, mesothelioma that has spread to other parts of the body, and mesothelioma that has returned or recurred.
And, at MD Anderson you're surrounded by the strength of one of the nation's foremost comprehensive cancer centers. We have all the support and wellness services needed to treat the whole person – not just the disease.
We're here to meet our patients where they are and journey with them.
MD Anderson patients have access to clinical trials offering promising new treatments that cannot be
found anywhere else.
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Prevention & Screening
Many cancers can be prevented with lifestyle changes and regular screening.