Cancer Services Program

Ask Me Logo

Local Cancer Screening Programs

Or call 1-866-442-CANCER (2262)

Bureau of Chronic Disease Control
New York State Department of Health
150 Broadway, Suite 350
Albany, NY 12204-0678

About Malignant Mesothelioma

What should people know about malignant mesothelioma?

Malignant mesothelioma (frequently called mesothelioma) is a cancer that starts in cells that line certain parts of the body, especially the chest or abdomen. Most mesotheliomas start in cells that line the chest cavity, particularly the outside of the lungs. Mesotheliomas can also start in cells that line the abdominal cavity. Mesotheliomas occasionally start in cells that line the outside of the heart, but these are very rare.

Mesothelioma is fairly rare. About 200 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed each year in New York State. The rate of mesothelioma in New York increased rapidly from the 1970s through the mid-1980s. Since then, the rate has continued to increase, but more slowly.

Who gets malignant mesothelioma?

Malignant mesothelioma affects men more often than women. It is rare in people under age 45. About 75% of people with malignant mesothelioma are age 65 and older. Mesothelioma is more common among Whites and Hispanics than among Blacks or Asians.

What factors increase risk for developing malignant mesothelioma?

At this time, the causes of malignant mesothelioma are not well understood. However, scientists agree that certain factors increase a person's risk of developing this disease. These risk factors include:

  • Asbestos. Long-term exposure to asbestos in the workplace accounts for most cases of mesothelioma. People at risk for workplace asbestos exposure include some miners, factory workers, insulation manufacturers and installers, railroad and automotive workers, ship builders, gas mask manufacturers and construction workers. Family members of people exposed to asbestos at work also have an increased risk of developing mesothelioma because asbestos fibers can be carried home on the clothes of workers.
  • Ionizing radiation.Exposure to high doses of ionizing radiation (such as radiation treatment for other cancers) has been associated with increased risk for developing malignant mesothelioma. Although risk is increased, mesothelioma only occurs rarely in these patients.

What other risk factors for malignant mesothelioma are scientists studying?

Scientists are studying whether infection with the simian virus 40 (SV40) increases risk for developing mesothelioma and how it might do so. Studies have shown that the virus can affect certain genes that have been linked to cancer. Some small studies have suggested that diets rich in vegetables may reduce the risk of mesothelioma, but these studies need to be confirmed. Additional research is needed to determine the role, if any, that these factors may have in the development of malignant mesothelioma.

What can I do to reduce my chances of getting malignant mesothelioma?

To help reduce the risk of getting malignant mesothelioma:

  • Be aware of workplace health and safety rules and follow them.
  • Discuss the risks and benefits of medical imaging, such as CT scans, with your health care provider to avoid unnecessary exposure to ionizing radiation. This is particularly important for children.

How else can I reduce my risk for cancer?

The following may help reduce the risk of developing cancer:

  • Choose a healthy diet to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Eat more vegetables, fruit and whole grains and eat less red and processed (e.g., bacon, sausage, luncheon meat, hot dogs) meats. These actions may reduce the risk of developing many types of cancer as well as other diseases.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Do not smoke. If you currently smoke, quit. Avoid exposure to second hand smoke. For more information on quitting smoking, visit the NYS Smoker's Quitline at or call 1-866-NY-QUITS.
  • Talk with your health care provider about recommended cancer screenings.

For more information: