If you have any symptoms of mesothelioma, they need to be checked by your doctor.

What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium, a layer of tissue that covers the organs in the chest and tummy.

Like the rest of your body, the mesothelium is made up of tiny "building blocks" called cells.

Mesothelioma begins when these cells grow abnormally into a cancerous lump or tumour.

Cancer is a disease of the body's cells. It starts in our genes. Our bodies are constantly making new cells, a process controlled by certain genes. Cancers are caused by damage to these genes. As the damaged cells replicate a lump or tumour is formed. 

Tumours can be:

  • Benign - not cancerous. These do not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Malignant - cancerous


Types of mesothelioma

There are two types of mesothelioma:

Peritoneal mesothelioma

In the tummy, the mesothelium is called the peritoneum. Peritoneal mesothelioma is the thickening of this lining around the organs in the tummy.   

Pleural mesothelioma

In the chest, the mesothelium is called the pleura. Pleural mesothelioma is the thickening of the lining that covers the lungs. It is the most common form of mesothelioma.

Even though it affects the lungs, pleural mesothelioma is not the same as lung cancer and is treated differently. 

Mesothelioma Diagram
The lung and pleura with mesothelioma
The lung and pleura with mesothelioma
The lung and pleura with mesothelioma

Mesothelioma symptoms 

Signs and symptoms of mesothelioma may include:

  • being short of breath (breathlessness)
  • weight loss for no reason
  • sweating
  • pain or a dull, heavy feeling in your chest
  • dry cough that doesn't go away
  • tummy pain and swelling
  • problems swallowing
  • a hoarse voice
  • coughing up mucus and/or blood

Having these symptoms does not mean you have mesothelioma, but it is important to get any changes checked by your doctor.

Tips for talking to your doctor

  • make a list of what you are feeling and how often it happens, including as much detail as possible
  • think about your family/whānau history of cancer and tell your doctor
  • go back to your doctor if you don't feel better, even if tests show you don't have a problem - you can ask for a second opinion if you want one 
  • take a family/whānau member or friend with you to the appointment for support

What causes mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is most commonly caused by breathing in asbestos fibres. 

In some cases, mesothelioma is caused by previous radiation treatment to the chest.

Asbestos is a mineral rock made up of masses of tiny fibres.

Asbestos was widely used in building materials, insulation, fireproofing and sound absorption. 

When asbestos is disturbed, it sends up fibres into the air that can be easily breathed in. 

Once the fibres are in the lung or abdomen, the body tries to break the fibres down and remove them which causes inflammation. 

There is an increasing number of mesothelioma cases in New Zealand due to past work and home renovations which exposed people to airborne asbestos fibres.

Asbestos-related diseases may take many years to develop. 

How is mesothelioma diagnosed?

If you have any symptoms of mesothelioma, they need to be checked by your doctor.

Your doctor will suggest several tests to check for any abnormal changes, or they may send you to a specialist.

Depending on your symptoms, this may be a lung specialist (for pleural mesothelioma) or a gastroenterologist (for peritoneal mesothelioma).

Mesothelioma tests include:

Blood test

Your treatment team will test your blood to check your general health.


A chest x-ray will show lumps or tumours 1cm or larger.

CT scan

A CT (computerised tomography) scan uses x-rays from different angles to make a 3D picture of inside your body and show smaller cancers than an x-ray.

Draining fluid from the pleura

If fluid is there, a sample may be collected using local anaesthetic to make the area numb for passing a needlthrough the skin into the fluid.

After a diagnosis

If your test results show cancer, this can be a difficult time, and feelings can change from one moment to the next. 

Everyone reacts differently when they learn they have cancer. There is no right or wrong way to feel. 

Talk about your treatment options with your doctor, family and friends. Ask for as much information as you need. It is up to you how involved you want to be in decisions about your treatment. 

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Cancer information nurse talking with client
Cancer information nurse talking with client
Cancer information nurse talking with client

Stages of mesothelioma

The mesothelioma stage tells you the cancer's size and whether it has spread to other parts of your body.

Based on your test results, the treatment team will give the cancer a stage between 1 to 4.

In general, stage 1 means it has not spread and stage 4 means it has spread to other organs. 

Knowing the mesothelioma stage will help your treatment team decide what treatment options are best for you.

Prognosis for mesothelioma

The prognosis is the likely outcome of a disease.

If the test results show mesothelioma, you may wish to speak with your treatment team about the prognosis.

The doctors will look at the type and stage of the cancer as well as your age and general health to give a prognosis, but no doctor can predict the exact outcome for you.

How is mesothelioma treated?

The treatment offered will depend on the type and stage of mesothelioma, as well as your general health and fitness.

Mesothelioma can be treated with:

  • chemotherapy
  • radiation treatment
  • surgery

Before any treatment begins, make sure that you have discussed and understood your treatment team's advice. You may ask for a second opinion if you want one.

Palliative care

Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life. It is not just about end of life care. 

Palliative care will help:

  • you to enjoy the best quality of life you can for as long as possible
  • make sure that your physical, practical, emotional and spiritual needs are looked after as well as possible
  • manage symptoms of your cancer
  • manage side effects of treatment
  • help you to feel in control of your situation
  • make your time as positive as it can be for you and your family/whānau

Speak with your treatment team about palliative care options for you and your family/whānau.

Need someone to talk to?
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0800 226 237 Information nurse

We know that going through cancer is tough and can raise many questions. You are not alone.

We have nurses and counsellors to answer your questions and provide the support you need. Get in touch

Last updated: July 1, 2021