Occupational lung disease

Australia has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world. This occupational lung disease is mainly caused by exposure to asbestos, which was banned in Australia in 2003. While there is currently no cure, there are a range of treatment options available that can manage the condition for months or years and help you to live well.

What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that affects the mesothelium, a thin tissue membrane covering internal organs of the body. It develops as a result of inhaling asbestos fibres. 90%of all mesotheliomas are pleural – affecting the mesothelium around the lungs. However, some can occur in the abdomen (known as abdominal mesothelioma) and very rarely, elsewhere.


It usually takes many years for mesothelioma to develop after a person is exposed to asbestos – between 20 and 60 years, although most commonly around 40 years after exposure. Symptoms of mesothelioma include:



Shortness of breath


Chest pain

Losing weight for no apparent reason

Loss of appetite


Fluid on the lung (pleural effusion)


It’s important to discuss your symptoms and occupational history with your doctor. In addition to the initial discussions with your GP and specialist doctor, you are also likely to undergo a series of tests, which may include:

  • Physical examination
  • Lung-function (breathing) tests
  • Chest X-ray
  • CT scan
  • Biopsy
  • Sputum cytology test
  • PET Scan
  • Blood test


Although mesothelioma can be difficult to treat, it may be possible to keep the disease under control for months or years. Currently, treatment usually includes chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of all three. There are also other management strategies which are designed to slow the progression of mesothelioma and help improve your quality of life. With mesothelioma, it is common to be referred to a lung cancer specialist (i.e. oncologist, radiation oncologist or lung cancer surgeon) or a specialised cancer service to ensure optimal treatment.


Anti-cancer medication which aims to kill cancer cells. The medication is usually given through a drip, but tablets are increasingly used. There are many different combinations of chemotherapy drugs.

Radiotherapy (or radiation therapy)

Uses high-energy targeted radiation to kill cancer cells by targeting their DNA. Radiotherapy is normally done several times per week for a number of weeks. More directed radiotherapy called proton therapy is being investigated for mesothelioma.


This is a type of surgery for people who develop pleural effusion (fluid on their lungs) This helps to prevent the fluid from coming back and causing breathlessness. It won’t cure mesothelioma, but it may help improve your quality of life by helping you breathe easier.


This is a newer type of therapy for mesothelioma and assists the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. These medications, which are given through a drip, can be used as a single therapy or in combination with other treatments, such as chemotherapy.


In some cases, removal of all or part of the tumour may be possible in combination with other treatments.