Mesothelioma - Institute for Respiratory Health


What is mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer in the form of a tumour that begins forming in the protective lining/membrane of various internal organs known as the mesothelium; the mesothelium lines primarily the lungs, heart and abdominal cavity.

Mesothelioma is generally caused by environmental and external chemical agents that an individual is exposed to due to their lifestyle e.g. asbestos. It can also be caused by genetic susceptibility, exposure to particular viruses, diseases and conditions as well as exposure to radiation.

Australia has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world because of the extensive use of asbestos in the past. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), two cases are diagnosed every day in Australia.

Even though asbestos is now banned in Australia, the number of Australians with the disease is growing because it can take decades to develop. It is a common misconception that asbestos is no longer problem. Do-it-yourself renovators are at risk of being exposed while fixing up the family home as two thirds of houses built between built between 1950 and 1980 contain some asbestos materials.

Mesothelioma symptoms

The symptoms of mesothelioma only show up 30 to 40 years after a person came into contact with asbestos. The condition is slow to appear and then quick to progress.

The most common symptoms are:

  • Chest pain, increased during breathing efforts
  • Dry, persistent cough
  • Frequent chest cold symptoms
  • Shortness of breath

The progression of the cancer can also result in general symptoms such as:

  • Generalised fatigue
  • Low grade fever
  • Weight loss with low appetite

When other areas of the body are affected by mesothelioma, other localised symptoms may occur:

  • When the peritoneum (lining on the abdomen) is involved, abdominal swelling, constipation, intestinal obstruction and pain and nausea may occur.
  • An abnormal mass or swelling may be felt in the scrotum when its lining is involved.

Mesothelioma causes

Research companies like the Institute for Respiratory Health are still trying to understand what causes mesothelioma, other than as a response to asbestos fibres over a long period of time.

Mesothelioma treatment

Unfortunately, there is no cure for mesothelioma and it is often not diagnosed until it is quite advanced. Treatment is designed to reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.

Depending on how advanced the disease is, you might have chemotherapy or radiotherapy to destroy the cancer cells, or surgery to remove the tumour, the pleura and sometimes the diaphragm and part of the lining of the heart.

To control breathlessness and pain, a non-evasive procedure called an IPCs is carried out. An IPC is a small tube which drains fluid from the area around your lungs called the pleural space. The IPC stays in place permanently or for as long as needed, so that the fluid can be drained easily and avoids further invasive procedures, for example the repeated use of needles to drain the fluid. More information can be found at

Mesothelioma research

Mesothelioma research helps us understand how the disease is caused, how it develops and how it can be best treated.

We have four research groups investigating various aspects of mesothelioma. The National Centre for Asbestos Related Diseases, the Pleural Medicine Group, the Tissue Repair Group and the Occupational and Respiratory Health Group.

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