Symptoms of Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma Vets - Types of Mesothelioma

What Are the Symptoms of Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma symptoms vary depending on where the tumors are located and how much the cancer has spread. Common symptoms of mesothelioma include pain in the chest or abdominal cavities, trouble breathing, and digestive issues.

Patients may not have any symptoms for decades. That’s because mesothelioma has what doctors refer to as a “long latency period,” or the time between initial exposure and diagnosis of mesothelioma. The latency period for mesothelioma ranges from 20 to 40 years, but in some patients, symptoms can appear only a decade after exposure.

Mesothelioma can be difficult to diagnose, as it is often mistaken for other common illnesses, like pneumonia or the flu. Symptoms can mirror those of other serious health conditions, including ovarian cancer or heart disease.

Unfortunately, due to the combination of a long latency period, slow onset of symptoms, and being mistaken for other illnesses, doctors may not diagnose mesothelioma until stage 3 or stage 4, when it has likely already spread throughout the body. Patients who are diagnosed in later stages may have a poorer prognosis and fewer treatment options.

Mesothelioma Symptoms: Types

There are three types of mesothelioma: pleural, peritoneal, and pericardial. The symptoms of the disease will vary depending on where the cancer is located in the body.

Mesothelioma Symptoms: Pleural

As the most common form of the disease, pleural mesothelioma accounts for roughly 80 percent of all diagnoses. This type of mesothelioma affects the pleura (lining of the lungs and chest). As the primary tumor develops and grows, it hardens into a sheath-like formation that can cause chest pain and breathing difficulties. Over time, fluid can build up around the lungs, causing a condition called “pleural effusion.”

  • Anemia
  • Back pain
  • Blood clots
  • Body aches
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Fever/night sweats
  • Fluid buildup around the lungs
  • Hoarseness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Persistent dry cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight loss
  • Wheezing

Pleural mesothelioma can be mistaken for other respiratory illnesses, including:

  • Adenocarcinoma
  • Asthma
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Emphysema
  • Influenza
  • Laryngitis
  • Lung cancer
  • Malignant neoplasm
  • Mesothelial hyperplasia
  • Pneumonia
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Synovial sarcomatoid carcinoma
  • Tuberculosis

Mesothelioma Symptoms: Peritoneal

Peritoneal mesothelioma affects the lining of the stomach and abdominal cavity. It’s the second most common type, making up nearly 20 percent of all cases. Patients may experience abdominal pain and swelling as the tumors spread across the abdominal cavity. Similar to pleural mesothelioma, peritoneal symptoms include fluid buildup, known as ascites, which can lead to mild seizures.

  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Anemia
  • Bloating
  • Body aches
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Fever/night sweats
  • Fluid build up around the lungs
  • Hernia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Wheezing

Peritoneal mesothelioma can be mistaken for other illnesses, including:

  • Colorectal adenocarcinoma
  • Inguinal hernia
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Primary peritoneal carcinoma
  • Stomach cancer

Mesothelioma Symptoms: Pericardial

As the rarest form, pericardial mesothelioma affects fewer than 5 percent of all patients. Doctors believe tumor growth begins in the lining of the heart and spreads to the chest cavity. Unfortunately, the majority of people won’t notice symptoms until stages 3 or 4, if at all. Because the pericardial form of mesothelioma is so rare, it is most often diagnosed after the patient has died.

  • Arrhythmia
  • Body aches
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Fever/night sweats
  • Fluid build up around the lungs
  • Heart murmur
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Persistent dry cough

Pericardial mesothelioma is often mistaken for other cardiac illnesses, such as:

  • Coronary heart disease
  • Heart failure
  • Myocarditis — inflammation of the heart muscle
  • Pericarditis — inflammation of the pericardium (lining of the heart)

Mesothelioma Symptoms: Stages

Stages 1 and 2

In addition to the location of the mesothelioma, the stage also significantly affects a patient’s symptoms. Those with early-stage mesothelioma — stages 1 and 2 — may exhibit only a few symptoms or none at all. At this point, the disease hasn’t spread to any nearby organs or lymph nodes. If a patient notices any changes, the symptoms will likely be mild or may resemble other conditions. Specific symptoms depend on where the tumors are located in the body. Common stage 1 and 2 mesothelioma symptoms include shortness of breath (dyspnea), a dry cough, chest or stomach pain, fever, body aches, fatigue, and unexplained weight loss.

Stages 3 and 4

As the cancer progresses, symptoms will become more apparent as the tumors spread to lymph nodes, blood vessels, and other organs. Stage 3 and 4 mesothelioma symptoms include a dry cough or coughing up blood (hemoptysis), shortness of breath, severe chest or stomach pain, body aches, fatigue, fever, night sweats, weight loss, blood clots, anemia, and a buildup of fluid around the affected organs.

Patients with late-stage pleural mesothelioma may have difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) or speaking. Patients with advanced peritoneal mesothelioma may experience nausea or vomiting, bowel issues, hernia, or seizures. And patients with advanced pericardial mesothelioma may have heart complications, such as arrhythmia or heart palpitations.

Mesothelioma Symptoms: Other Factors

Metastasis

If the cancer metastasizes (spreads) to other organs, patients may notice additional symptoms in different parts of the body. Peritoneal mesothelioma, for example, often spreads to other abdominal organs, such as the pancreas, liver, kidneys, spleen, and appendix. Metastasis may lead to new symptoms that aren’t commonly associated with the primary type of mesothelioma.

Asbestos Type

The symptoms of mesothelioma develop gradually for months or years. However, patients who worked with specific types of asbestos may fall ill much sooner. For example, more dangerous forms of asbestos, such as crocidolite, can cause symptoms to present earlier.

Duration of Exposure

The number of time patients handled or were exposed to asbestos also plays a role in the development of symptoms. Those who worked with even small amounts of the toxic material over many years may notice signs much earlier. Similarly, patients working with large amounts of asbestos over a shorter duration of time may also develop mesothelioma more quickly.

Consider, for example, the first responders who worked at the site of the World Trade Center during and after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The Twin Towers were built in the early 1970s, and sections of the buildings (nearly 20 stories) contained asbestos insulation. When they collapsed that day, hundreds of tons of pulverized asbestos fibers were released into the air. Thousands of firefighters, paramedics, police officers, and search and rescue crew members were exposed to large amounts of toxic asbestos, both on September 11 and during the days, weeks, and months that followed. Just three short years later, in 2004, a first responder died of mesothelioma. A second worker died in 2006. Compared to the average mesothelioma patient, this early onset of symptoms demonstrates a much shorter latency period due to the volume of asbestos to which these patients were exposed.

Mesothelioma Symptoms: Finding Relief

Depending on the patient, type of mesothelioma, and stage of the disease, symptoms may feel uncomfortable, painful, or become life-threatening. However, there are ways to mitigate symptoms and relieve pain.

After you’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma and know the location and stage of the cancer, your doctor will plan a customized course of treatment. Treatment for mesothelioma often involves a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and other therapies, such as immunotherapy.

This treatment will probably automatically address many of your symptoms by attacking their cause: the mesothelioma itself. But there are also therapies and procedures that can help alleviate many of the symptoms outlined above apart from your primary cancer treatment.

Mesothelioma Symptom Relief: Medical treatments

Pleurodesis, Paracentesis, and Thoracentesis

Fluid buildup around the affected organs is one of the most painful symptoms of mesothelioma. Doctors refer to fluid in the lungs as pleural effusion, fluid around the abdomen as ascites, and fluid around the heart as pericardial effusion. Pleurodesis, paracentesis, and thoracentesis are all surgical procedures used to remove that fluid, to make breathing and moving more comfortable for patients.

Steroids

Mesothelioma patients often experience weakness, fatigue, nausea, and weight loss, both as a result of the mesothelioma itself and as a side effect of treatment. Doctors may prescribe steroids to reduce some of these symptoms. Steroids increase appetite and energy levels, which can help patients remain active before, during, and after treatment. They are often used after surgery to reduce inflammation in the body.

Pain Medicine

Doctors may prescribe pain medicine depending on a patient’s course of treatment. In some cases, over-the-counter medications, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, will provide relief for mild symptoms.

Patients who receive a mesothelioma diagnosis early (in stage 1 or stage 2) generally have more treatment options available to them, which can improve quality of life and extend life expectancy.

Author: Elizabeth Schubert – Last Edited: October 30, 2019