About pleural mesothelioma
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that starts from mesothelial cells. These cells line the surface of most of the internal organs and body cavities, creating a protective membrane called the mesothelium.
Some mesotheliomas form a mass (tumour), while others grow along the mesothelium and form a thick covering. In later stages, mesothelioma may spread (metastasise) to other parts of the body.
Learn more about:
- What is pleural mesothelioma?
- How pleural mesothelioma affects the pleura
- What causes mesothelioma?
- How common is mesothelioma?
- What can I expect after diagnosis?
- Can I seek compensation?
The mesothelium (protective membrane) that covers each lung is called the pleura. Mesothelioma that develops in the pleura is called pleural mesothelioma, and accounts for about 95% of mesothelioma cases.
Pleural mesothelioma is not the same as lung cancer – it is diagnosed and treated differently.
There are 2 layers of tissue in the pleura. The inner layer (the visceral pleura) covers the lung surface, and the outer layer (the parietal pleura) lines the chest wall and diaphragm. Mesothelioma causes these 2 layers of the pleura to thicken. They can then press on the lung, stopping it expanding when you breathe in (inhale).
Between the 2 layers of the pleura is the pleural cavity (also called the pleural space), which normally contains a thin film of fluid. This fluid allows the 2 layers of pleura to slide over each other – so the lungs move smoothly against the chest wall when you breathe. When too much fluid collects in the pleural cavity, it is called pleural effusion.
Other types of mesothelioma
- Peritoneal mesothelioma – Sometimes mesothelioma develops in the lining of the abdomen. This accounts for about 10% of cases and is called malignant peritoneal mesothelioma. Learn more about peritoneal mesothelioma.
- Pericardial mesothelioma – Rarely, mesothelioma occurs in the pericardium, the mesothelium covering the heart. This is called pericardial mesothelioma.
- Testicular mesothelioma – Even more rarely, mesothelioma can occur in the membrane around the testicles, the tunica vaginalis. This is called testicular mesothelioma.
For more on this, see Rare and less common cancers.
How pleural mesothelioma affects the pleura (the membrane that covers the lungs)
Pleural mesothelioma affects the pleura – the membrane that covers the lungs. The lungs are the main organs used for breathing. They are part of the respiratory system, along with the nose, mouth, windpipe (trachea), large airways (bronchi) and smaller airways (bronchioles). The lungs rest on the diaphragm – a wide, thin muscle that helps you to breathe.
The respiratory system
What causes mesothelioma?
Asbestos is the name for a group of naturally occurring minerals that are resistant to high temperatures and humidity. Asbestos was used in many building products in Australia from the 1940s until 1987. Since 2004, Australia has banned asbestos being sold, reused and/or imported. Despite the ban, asbestos is still found in many older buildings, so special care needs to be taken when renovating. Asbestos has also been found in some products from overseas.
Highest risk groups
People who may have been exposed to asbestos at work include: builders, plumbers, gasfitters and electricians; metal-fitters, turners and toolmakers; boilermakers and welders; steelworkers; asbestos miners; asbestos cement manufacturing workers; insulators; automotive industry workers; mechanics; transport workers (especially waterside workers); telecommunications technicians; and textile workers.
People cleaning work clothes with asbestos fibres on them, or spending time in areas where asbestos has been disturbed during renovations or maintenance, can also develop mesothelioma.
It can take many years for mesothelioma to develop after a person is exposed to asbestos. It is often around 40 years after exposure, but may be 10–60 years. This is called the latency period or interval.
The Australian Mesothelioma Registry collects information about new cases of mesothelioma. The aim is to try and help prevent cases in the future. Health professionals may inform the registry about new cases, or you can record your diagnosis by calling 1800 378 861.
How common is mesothelioma?
Australia has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world, with an estimated 900 Australians diagnosed each year. Men are 4 times more likely than women to be diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma. This is probably because asbestos exposure is more common in jobs that were traditionally done by men, such as building and plumbing.
Pleural mesothelioma makes up about 95% of mesothelioma cases. Peritoneal mesothelioma is less common and makes up less than 5% of cases. Mesothelioma is more common in people over the age of 65, but it can occur in younger people.
What can I expect?
The plan for what happens if you have mesothelioma can vary from person to person, but is usually as follows:
- Diagnosis and staging – You will have various tests to confirm a diagnosis of mesothelioma and work out how far it has progressed. The results will help you and your health professionals make decisions about treatment.
- Treatment – Depending on how advanced the mesothelioma is and other factors, treatment may achieve a longer period of disease control and improve quality of life.
- Managing symptoms – For many people, the main goal of treatment will be to manage symptoms and improve quality of life. Depending on how mesothelioma affects your health, you may have periods of relatively good health when symptoms are under control or less active. You may also have periods when symptoms need to be relieved with more intensive treatment.
Can I seek compensation?
People who develop mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure may be able to make a claim for compensation. It’s helpful to make notes and talk to family and friends about when and where you may have been exposed to asbestos.
It is important to get advice from an experienced lawyer as soon as possible after diagnosis, because a case for compensation must be started within your lifetime. Mesothelioma or asbestos support groups may be able to help you with more information about seeking compensation.
See Making a Claim to learn more about seeking compensation.
Dr Anthony Linton, Medical Oncologist, Concord Cancer Centre and Concord Repatriation General Hospital, NSW; Dr Naveed Alam, Thoracic Surgeon, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne and Monash Medical Centre, VIC; Donatella Arnoldo, Consumer; Polly Baldwin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Dr Melvin (Wee Loong) Chin, Medical Oncologist, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and National Centre for Asbestos Related Diseases, WA; Prof Kwun Fong, Thoracic and Sleep Physician and Director, UQ Thoracic Research Centre, The Prince Charles Hospital, and Professor of Medicine, The University of Queensland, QLD; Vicki Hamilton OAM, Consumer and CEO, Asbestos Council of Victoria/GARDS Inc., VIC; Dr Susan Harden, Radiation Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Penny Jacomos, Social Worker, Asbestos Diseases Society of South Australia, SA; Prof Brian Le, Director, Parkville Integrated Palliative Care Service, The Royal Melbourne Hospital and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Lung Cancer Support Nurses, Lung Foundation Australia; Jocelyn McLean, Mesothelioma Support Coordinator, Asbestos Diseases Research Institute, NSW; Prof David Morris, Peritonectomy Surgeon, St George Hospital and UNSW, NSW; Joanne Oates, Registered Occupational Therapist, Expert Witness in Dust Diseases, and Director, Evaluate, NSW; Chris Sheppard and Adam Barlow, RMB Lawyers.
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