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Key questions about Mesothelioma

Exposure to asbestos fibres or asbestos dust is the cause of most (9 out of 10) cases of mesothelioma. But in some cases there is no clear link to asbestos.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The first signs of mesothelioma are often vague and similar to other conditions. If you are concerned, see your general practitioner (GP). It can take time to be diagnosed, as the symptoms may come and go, and more common conditions are often investigated first. Let your GP know if you think you have been exposed to asbestos in the past. Finding mesothelioma early may mean more treatment options are available to you.

Pleural mesothelioma may cause:

  • shortness of breath (breathlessness), which usually feels worse with activity or when you are lying down
  • pain in the chest around the ribs or in the shoulder, which may be sharp and stabbing, worse with deep breaths, or dull and persistent
  • extra-sensitive skin or change in skin sensation (less common)
  • general symptoms such as loss of appetite with weight loss; loss of muscle bulk; fatigue or loss of energy; a persistent cough or a change in coughing pattern; and night sweats.

Peritoneal mesothelioma may cause:

  • abdominal pain
  • a swollen abdomen
  • poor appetite, nausea and vomiting
  • unexplained increase in fatigue and low energy
  • night sweats or fever
  • bowel or urinary problems.

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.

Which health professionals will I see?

Your GP will arrange the first tests to assess your symptoms. If these tests do not rule out mesothelioma, you will usually be referred to a specialist, such as a respiratory physician or gastroenterologist. The specialist will arrange further tests.

If mesothelioma is diagnosed, the specialist will consider the treatment options. Often these will be discussed with other health professionals at what is known as a multidisciplinary team (MDT) meeting. During and after treatment, you will see a range of health professionals who specialise in different aspects of your care.

Health professionals you may see

GPassists you with treatment decisions and works in partnership with your specialists in providing ongoing care
respiratory (thoracic) physiciandiagnoses diseases of the lungs, including pleural mesothelioma, and recommends ways to treat any symptoms
gastroenterologistdiagnoses and treats disorders of the digestive system, including peritoneal mesothelioma
radiologistanalyses x-rays and scans; an interventional radiologist may also perform a biopsy under ultrasound or CT, and deliver some treatments
pathologistexamines cells and tissue samples to work out the type and extent of mesothelioma
thoracic (respiratory) surgeonconducts some biopsy procedures and performs surgery to prevent and treat symptoms of pleural mesothelioma, including radical surgery
surgical oncologist/general surgeonperforms surgery to prevent and treat symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma
medical oncologisttreats cancer with drug therapies such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy and targeted therapy (systemic treatment)
radiation oncologisttreats cancer by prescribing and overseeing a course of radiation therapy
palliative care specialisttreats pain and other symptoms to maximise wellbeing and improve quality of life
palliative care teamwork closely with the GP and other specialists to help control symptoms such as pain, breathlessness, nausea and anxiety, and maintain quality of life
nurseadministers drugs and provides care, support and information throughout treatment
cancer care coordinatorcoordinates your care, liaises with other members of the MDT and supports you and your family throughout treatment; care may also be coordinated by a clinical nurse consultant (CNC) or clinical nurse specialist (CNS
community nursevisits you at home to provide medical care and treatment, assesses your needs for supportive care, and liaises with your GP and MDT as required
dietitianhelps with nutrition concerns and recommends changes to diet during treatment and recovery
physiotherapist, exercise physiologist, occupational therapistassist with physical and practical problems, including restoring movement and mobility after treatment and recommending aids and equipment
social workerlinks you to support services and helps you with emotional, practical and financial issues
psychologisthelps you manage your emotional response to diagnosis and treatment

Featured resources

Peritoneal Mesothelioma - Your guide to best cancer care

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Pleural Mesothelioma - Your guide to best cancer care

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Understanding Mesothelioma

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed February 2023 by the following expert content reviewers: 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.