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About mesothelioma

Find out about who gets mesothelioma, where it starts and how common it is.

What it is

Mesothelioma is a cancer that most commonly starts in the layers of tissue that cover each lung (the pleura). More rarely it starts in the layer of tissue in the abdomen that surrounds the digestive system organs (the peritoneum).

How common it is

In the UK around 2,700 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year. It is quite a rare cancer, but it is becoming more common. 

Mesothelioma in the chest (pleural mesothelioma) is much more common than mesothelioma in the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma).

Who gets it

About 5 times more men than women get mesothelioma. This is probably because it is often caused by exposure to asbestos at work.

In the UK, on average each year half (50%) of cases were diagnosed in people aged 75 and over.

Where it starts

Mesothelioma starts in the types of cells that cover the outer surface of most of our internal body organs (mesothelial cells). These cells form a lining called the mesothelium.

About three quarters (75%) of mesotheliomas are in the chest. This is called pleural mesothelioma.

About a quarter (25%) of mesotheliomas are in the tummy (abdomen). This is called peritoneal mesothelioma. 

The lungs and pleura

Pleural mesothelioma starts in the two sheets of tissue that cover your lungs (called pleura or pleural membranes). The gap between the pleura is called the pleural space.

These sheets help to protect your lungs. They also make a fluid that helps them slide over each other when your lungs expand and deflate as you breathe. The gap between these sheets is called the pleural space.

Diagram showing the lungs and pleura.jpg

The sheet of tissue covering the heart (the pericardium) is very close to the pleura. So in some people pleural mesothelioma may also spread into the pericardium. The diagram below shows the pleura thickening due to mesothelioma.

Diagram showing mesothelioma in the chest pleural mesothelioma.jpg

The abdomen and peritoneum

The sheet of tissue covering the organs of your tummy (abdomen) is called the peritoneum. It helps to protect the contents of your tummy and keep them in place. It also makes a lubricating fluid that helps the organs inside move smoothly against each other as you move around.

Mesothelioma of the tissues lining your abdominal cavity is called peritoneal mesothelioma. It does not usually spread to other parts of the body.

Benign mesothelioma

Very rarely, a non cancerous (benign) type of mesothelioma can develop in the lining of your lungs or the lining of your reproductive organs. This can happen in men and women. These tumours are so rare that we don't cover them here.

Last reviewed: 
10 Nov 2015
  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition)
    VT De Vita, TS Lawrence and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015

  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

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