Mesothelium is the name for the tissue that lines your lungs, stomach, heart, and other organs. Rarely, a tumour can grow from this tissue, in which case it is called a mesothelioma.

Such tumours can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). Most times such tumours start in the lungs, but can also start in the abdomen or other organs.


Most people who get mesothelioma have been exposed to airborne asbestos particles at some stage in their lives. (70 - 80% according to studies reported by the National Cancer Institute in the USA) 

When asbestos fibres are inhaled or ingested, the body is unable to break them down or expel them. Those fibres remain in the body causing scarring and damaging sensitive tissues. That damage can eventually lead to cancer or other asbestos-related diseases.

Most cases of mesothelioma are seen in workers who were exposed to asbestos many years earlier, before we knew the risk. This has led to an increased rate of mesothelioma in NZ men age 50-60. 

To protect workers from this serious disease, there are now strict rules about working with any asbestos-related materials. 


Symptoms of a mesothelioma can include:

  • shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • a persistent cough
  • pain under the rib cage
  • fever and sweating particularly at night
  • pain, swelling, or lumps in the abdomen
  • weight loss for no known reason.

Diagnosis is made using imaging studies, such as chest x-ray, CT scan, and a biopsy. Depending on where the tumour is, a range of procedures can be used to obtain a biopsy such as a thoracoscopy (a small incision between two ribs with a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and viewing lens inserted into the chest to obtain a small sample of tissue as a biopsy).


Treatment depends on whether the tumour is malignant or benign and at what stage it is diagnosed. Common options include surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy for malignant mesothelioma.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) depends on a number of factors:

  • the stage of the cancer (how advanced it is at the time of diagnosis)
  • tumour size – is it large?
  • position – can the tumour be completely removed by surgery?
  • the amount of fluid in the chest or abdomen
  • the patient's age and general health, including lung and heart health
  • the type of mesothelioma cancer cells
  • whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back). 

Learn more

The following links take you to other websites that provide further information on mesothelioma. Be aware that websites from other countries may contain information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.

Mesothelioma Cancer Council Victoria, 2011
Mesothelioma NHS Choices, 2014
Development of regulations to support the new Health & Safety at Work Act 2016 Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment
Working with asbestos? Rules changed April 2016  Worksafe NZ
Malignant mesothelioma treatment Patient information. (American, treatment can be different) National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health USA, 2015
Malignant mesothelioma NIH:U.S National Library of Medicine USA, 2014

Credits: Nov 2014. Latest update Sept 2016.