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Skip Navigation LinksPennsylvania Department of Health > My Health > A-Z Health Topics > A-D > Cancer > Mesothelioma


Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that invades the protective membrane, or mesothelium, around the internal organs and almost all cases are linked to asbestos exposure.  Nationally, reports of mesothelioma are less common than other cancers.  This cancer often goes undetected for 35 to 50 years after asbestos exposure since symptoms usually do not appear until the cancer is in a more advanced stage.  Organs most commonly affected:
Lungs (pleural mesothelioma)  
Abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma)  
Heart (pericardial mesothelioma) 
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 2,000-3,000 cases are diagnosed annually, with approximately 80% of that number affecting men over the age of 60.  According to 1999 CDC mortality statistics, Pennsylvania is ranked 16th in the nation for the number of mesothelioma deaths.  Five Pennsylvania counties were reported with the highest number of deaths caused by mesothelioma: Northampton, York, Montgomery, Chester, and Philadelphia.  The Pennsylvania Department of Health, Bureau of Health Statistics and Research, reported 956 cases of mesothelioma during the five-year period from 1998 to 2002.
Who is at Risk?
Working with asbestos is the major risk factor for mesothelioma.  Although it is still used in some products, most use stopped after 1989 when the connection between asbestos and cancer became apparent.  Those working in or around products such as insulation, floor tiles, door gaskets, soundproofing, roofing, patching compounds, fireproof gloves, ironing board covers, and even brake pads can show symptoms for mesothelioma years after initial contact.   Asbestos is so common in many industry and work places that for many years it was not considered a health threat.
Prevention and Detection
Symptoms of mesothelioma are also common to less serious conditions. 

The best advice for anyone who has worked with asbestos is to inform their physician.

Symptoms for pleural mesothelioma include:
Breathing and swallowing difficulties, coughing, shortness of breath, fever, and weight loss.
Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include:
Nausea and vomiting, weight loss, loss of appetite, fever, bowel obstruction, and pain and swelling of the stomach area.
Symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma include:
Palpitations, chest pains, breathing difficulties, and persistent coughing.
The treatment program for mesothelioma depends on the stage of the cancer, where the cancer is, how far the cancer has spread, how the cancer cells look under the microscope, the patient's age, and the patient's decision about treatment.  Even with available treatment programs, the patient's outcome is dependent on the stage of the disease.  Therefore, early diagnosis is critical.  In addition to the more traditional treatment options of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy, there are new research treatments currently being explored.
Photodynamic therapy uses a fixed frequency of light to target abnormal cells and kill them off by the activation of photosensitizing drugs. 
Immunotherapy fights the abnormal cells through the use of the body's own defense system through enhancement and development of the immune system. 
Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy is a radiation treatment that targets just the affected area or tumor, avoiding contact of healthy cells and tissue.
If you think you or a family member have been exposed to asbestos, talk to your doctor. 
For guidelines and additional information:  
Centers for Disease Control and 
The Asbestos Disease Awareness 
The Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, 
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Asbestos Project,  
For Pennsylvania specific data on mesothelioma prevalence and mortality, contact the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Bureau of Health Statistics and Research, at (717)783-2548