Symptoms of Mesothelioma

Symptoms of mesothelioma differ based on the location of tumors and stage of the disease. Learn about the different symptoms of illness.

Mesothelioma doctor points towards their patients x-ray.

What Are the Symptoms of Mesothelioma?

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

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

Veterans who were diagnosed with mesothelioma may be eligible for VA compensation. To find out if you qualify, speak with a patient advocate today.

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This disease 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.

Symptoms Based on Type

There are three types of mesothelioma based on where tumors are located in the body. They are known as pleural, peritoneal, and pericardial. The symptoms of the disease will vary based on the site of cancerous tumors.

Pleural Mesothelioma

As the most common form of the disease, it 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
  • Asbestos cough
  • 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

Peritoneal Mesothelioma

This type 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, issues from peritoneal 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 buildup 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

Pericardial Mesothelioma

As the rarest form, pericardial 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 any issues until stages 3 or 4, if at all. Because the pericardial form is so rare, it’s 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)

Symptoms Based on Stage

In addition to the site of tumors, the stage of disease also significantly affects a patient’s symptoms. Those with early-stage mesothelioma — stages 1 and 2 — may exhibit only a few issues 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 issues include shortness of breath (dyspnea), a dry cough, chest or stomach pain, fever, body aches, fatigue, and unexplained weight loss.

As the disease progresses, symptoms will become more apparent as the tumors spread to lymph nodes, blood vessels, and other organs. Stage 3 and 4 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.

Other Factors to Consider

Metastasis, Asbestos Type, and Duration of Exposure

If tumors metastasize (spread) 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 illness.

Symptoms develop gradually over the course of months or years. However, patients who worked with specific types of asbestos (primary cause of the disease) may fall ill much sooner. For example, more dangerous forms of asbestos, such as crocidolite, can cause symptoms to present earlier.

Number of times the patient’s handled or was 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.

Veterans with mesothelioma can take action without affecting their benefits.

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Pain 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 the disease and know the location and stage, 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 tumors. But there are also palliative therapies and procedures that can help alleviate many of the symptoms outlined above apart from your primary cancer treatment.

Pleurodesis, Paracentesis, and Thoracentesis

Fluid buildup around the affected organs is one of the most painful symptoms of the disease. 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 and Pain Medicine

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.

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 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.