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What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos dust. There are two types of mesothelioma. Pleural mesothelioma develops in the lining surrounding the lungs which is called the pleura.  Peritoneal mesothelioma develops in the lining of the abdominal organs which is called the peritoneum.

Mesothelioma can occur even where there has been a very brief episode of exposure to asbestos.

How does one develop this disease?

Mesothelioma can occur even where there has been a very brief episode of exposure to asbestos. In fact, there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos in the context of the risk of developing mesothelioma. Some have developed it from working with asbestos materials for a matter of hours, living near a factory which manufactured asbestos products or washing the clothes of a spouse who worked with asbestos. While there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, mesothelioma generally develops in those who worked with asbestos regularly over a number of years during the course of employment. It is believed that genetic factors play a role in the development of mesothelioma and that is why some people develop mesothelioma as a consequence of a brief exposure to asbestos while others who worked with asbestos for many, many years do not.

Latency period

Mesothelioma can develop about 10 years after an exposure to asbestos but that is very rare. The average latency period is about 35 to 40 years. It does develop up to 60 years after the first exposure.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

The most common symptom of pleural mesothelioma is sudden severe breathlessness on exertion which may or may not be accompanied by back or chest pain. The breathlessness is caused by a build up of fluid between the chest wall and the lung called a pleural effusion. The fluid is produced as a consequence of the mesothelioma. It is not uncommon for several litres of fluid to accumulate, placing pressure on the underlying lung and making it harder for the person to breathe.

The severe breathlessness is such that medical treatment is sought, usually from a general medical practitioner. A chest x-ray and CT scan is then arranged which discloses the build up of pleural fluid. Arrangements are then made for the fluid to be drained. Tests are conducted on the fluid. These tests sometimes provide a confident diagnosis but more often than not, they do not.

After the fluid is drained, it is common for a biopsy to be taken during which tissue samples of the tumour are removed. At the same time, commercial talc is applied to the pleural cavity which helps the lung adhere to the chest wall so that the fluid does not re-accumulate. A biopsy allows a confident diagnosis to be made in the great majority of cases.

The symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma are slightly different in that the build up of fluid occurs in the abdominal cavity causing distension of the abdomen. Scans of the abdomen are conducted to detect the cause. These reveal the presence of a build up of fluid which is referred to as ascites. Tests are conducted on the fluid drained. Thereafter, a biopsy is often performed, resulting in a confident diagnosis.


Unfortunately, there is no recognised treatment that provides a cure for mesothelioma.

In some cases where the victim is in otherwise good health, a surgeon can perform a radical procedure called a pleuropneumonectomy in which the affected lung is removed. In the case of peritoneal mesothelioma, a procedure can be performed by a surgeon to remove the peritoneum and “debulk” the tumour. Only a small number of victims have these procedures.

It is common for mesothelioma victims to have chemotherapy. In the case of pleural mesothelioma, chemotherapy occurs after the biopsy has confirmed the diagnosis. In the case of peritoneal mesothelioma, chemotherapy drugs are placed in the abdominal cavity when the tumour is debulked. Chemotherapy can, in some cases, prolong life. Success rates vary. In some cases it is of no or little benefit. In other cases it can prolong life for months, even years.


Recent studies of a drug known as Keytruda have indicated that the drug may halt the progression of mesothelioma in some cases. The use of this drug is in its early stages but early studies have been encouraging.

Get in touch with Turner Freeman Lawyers

For asbestos disease claims such as mesothelioma, in New South Wales, we act for our clients on a ‘No Win-No Fee’ basis. For more information regarding the compensation process for asbestos related disease claims call 13 43 63 and speak with an expert lawyer today. Our offices are located in Sydney, Parramatta, Campbelltown, Newcastle, Penrith, Wollongong and Gloucester.

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