Mesothelioma Facts & Information

Each year, nearly 3,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with mesothelioma. When you or someone you love receives a mesothelioma cancer diagnosis, trying to understand this medically challenging cancer can be an overwhelming process.

Most people have never heard of malignant mesothelioma. At Simmons Hanly Conroy, our lawyers have helped thousands of patients and families affected by mesothelioma. Below is an overview of mesothelioma information we’ve compiled from decades working with patients.

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Amy Fair R.N.
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If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma or another disease linked to asbestos exposure, however, we strongly recommend you find a mesothelioma specialist by reaching out to an organization such as the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation for the most up-to-date information.

What is Malignant Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a tumor that most often forms on the mesothelium, the thin membrane lining the lungs, chest and abdomen. The mesothelium surrounds and protects vital organs like the lungs and heart, making a lubricating fluid that allows the organs to move. Mesothelioma can be cancerous or noncancerous. If the tumor on the mesothelium is cancerous, it is called malignant mesothelioma. If the tumor on the mesothelium is noncancerous, it is called benign mesothelioma.

What Causes Malignant Mesothelioma?

Virtually all cases of malignant mesothelioma are linked to asbestos exposure. Symptoms of the disease typically start to occur 10 to 50 years after exposure. While there are several treatment options available, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery, the disease still has a high mortality rate because it is not usually discovered until late stages when tumors have spread throughout the body.

Types of Cells Associated with Malignant Mesothelioma

Epithelial cells: Organized and structured, these cells have a clearly defined elongated egg shape. Most common in pleural mesothelioma, they account for about 50 to 70 percent of malignant mesothelioma diagnoses. Epithelial cells bundle, or stick together, which slows metastasis, but they also divide faster contributing to faster tumor growth.

Sarcomatoid cells: Random and irregular, these cells are elongated and spindle-shaped. They are the most dangerous of malignant mesothelioma cell types. Because the cells are not bundled, like epithelial cells, they metastasize faster than other mesothelioma cell types.

Biphasic cells: A mix of epithelial and sarcomatoid cells.

Epithelial Cell Makeup

Malignant mesothelioma tumors with an epithelial cell makeup have a uniform, ordered structure and, therefore, must spread through the lymph nodes. This makes the tumors less aggressive and slows the spread of disease.

Sarcomatoid or Biphasic Cell Makeup

Malignant mesothelioma tumors with a sarcomatoid or biphasic cell makeup are more complex. These cells can spread through the blood, meaning they can spread to other areas of the body more quickly. The quick spread may minimize treatment options and limit a patient’s prognosis.

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Malignant Mesothelioma Prognosis

Once symptoms for malignant mesothelioma start to appear, the disease can progress rapidly. Malignant tumors can invade and destroy nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body. Doctors and scientists theorize malignant mesothelioma spreads throughout the body more quickly than other types of cancer. In fact, malignant mesothelioma can grow so quickly it spreads to other parts of the body within a matter of months.

There are three ways cancer spreads throughout the body:

  1. Cancer invades surrounding tissue
  2. Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels
  3. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood

When cancer cells break away from the primary tumor and travel to other places in the body, a secondary tumor may form elsewhere. This process is called metastasis. The rate of metastasis depends on the type of cells in the primary cancerous tumor.

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Amy Fair R.N.Reviewed by:Amy Fair R.N.

Director of Medical Relations

  • Fact-Checked
  • Medical Reviewer

Amy fills a unique role helping guide patients and families through the often confusing and overwhelming steps following an asbestos-related cancer diagnosis. Assisted by 14 medical assistants and a Licensed Practical Nurse, Amy and her medical team provide healthcare information and explain treatment options to those recently diagnosed and throughout the progression of their disease.