What is mesothelioma and how is it diagnosed?

09 January 2019

Mesothelioma is a malignant tumour of the mesothelium - the thin membrane that surrounds various organs in the body. This cancer is incurable, although medical advances are being made all the time and the results of new treatments such as immunotherapy are not yet known.

Some cases of mesothelioma affect the peritoneum (the outer lining of the abdomen) and the heart (pericardium) but the majority of mesothelioma cases develop in the pleura (the delicate lining of the lungs).

What causes mesothelioma?

Exposure to asbestos – primarily through dust and fibres from asbestos being inhaled or ingested - causes mesothelioma. This definite causal link between mesothelioma and asbestos has been established for many years. There is also no ‘safe level’ of exposure to asbestos. Low exposure is sufficient to trigger the cancer in some people who have worked with asbestos without using protective equipment as well as those who may have come into contact with asbestos in the course of their work (including spouses who may have washed or handled contaminated work clothes).

People who may have been exposed where asbestos has been disturbed in a public building such as a school or office are also at as much risk of contracting mesothelioma.

Perhaps the most pernicious thing about mesothelioma is the fact that symptoms do not become evident until many years after the initial exposure to asbestos. The latency period between initial exposure and any symptoms of mesothelioma becoming apparent is usually between 10 - 50 years (sometimes more).

Symptoms of mesothelioma

Many of the early symptoms of mesothelioma are easily confused with other conditions, so at first both medical professionals and the mesothelioma victim themselves may mistake them for common, minor ailments. Initial symptoms of pleural mesothelioma can include:

  • Pain in the side of the chest or lower back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Persistent cough
  • Fever
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss (without trying)
  • Difficulty swallowing (feeling like food gets stuck)
  • Hoarseness

Diagnosing Mesothelioma

This form of cancer is challenging to diagnose, even for highly qualified oncologists, because symptoms rarely appear until the disease has entered its later stages. Even then they are hard to distinguish from the signs of more common respiratory illnesses. Many people do not immediately make the connection between their condition now and work they may have done decades ago, while others may simply put their symptoms down to ‘old age’.

Initially, the symptoms of mesothelioma can be relatively tame (indeed sometimes, people don’t have any noticeable early stage symptoms at all). The early symptoms of pleural mesothelioma are almost the same as those associated with pneumonia, COPD and even the common cold, so General Practitioners seeing patients for the first time are unlikely to suspect mesothelioma for that very reason– this is why if you have had an asbestos exposure it’s important to tell your GP.

Mesothelioma does not always show up on a chest X-ray, especially in the early stages. However, a chest X-ray may be able to show a pleural effusion (a build-up of fluid in between the pleura) which should raise some concerns. Even then, medical professionals are more likely to suspect a disease such as pulmonary fibrosis due to the similarities between its symptoms and those of mesothelioma.

Distinguishing mesothelioma from other diseases is best diagnosed through a biopsy and pathology report to make a definite diagnosis. A patient’s first appointment is usually with their primary care provider, who often refers on to an oncologist, who then conducts advanced imaging and tissue sampling tests.

Once diagnosed, the life expectancy of mesothelioma victims is very short, although again advances in treatment do offer hope of extension, but generally speaking it is essential to act promptly. Getting a confirmed diagnosis of mesothelioma is important to secure the correct treatment but is also required for making a claim for compensation.

Mesothelioma help available

For more information and help available please contact us today on freephone 0808 2741633 for a free no obligation initial consultation and ask to speak to Sharine Burgess, senior associate at Shoosmiths and expert in industrial diseases and personal injury.

Sharine Burgess

Sharine Burgess, senior associate at Shoosmiths



This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024

Contact our experts

Sorry, there are a few problems with the information you have entered. Please correct these before continuing.


One moment please...

Thank You

Your submission has been received. We'll be in touch soon.

Who we work with

  • Brain Injury Group
  • Child Brain Injury Trust
  • Headway
  • SIA
  • Back Up
  • Macmillan
  • Danielles Flutterbyes
  • Forces
  • Bens Heroes Trust

Our accreditations

  • Accredited Personal Injury
  • Apil
  • Ama
  • Clinical Negligence
  • Legal 500
  • UK Chambers
  • The Society Of Clinical Injury Lawyers