Symptoms of Mesothelioma

In This Article

Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that can affect mesothelium membranes, which are tissues that line certain organs, including the lungs, heart, chest cavity, and abdominal cavity. The site of the mesothelioma will influence what symptoms you experience. Lung symptoms such as a dry cough and breathing difficulties are common, but you might also experience digestive symptoms or chest pain. Discover the potential signs that may occur early or late in the disease, and how different organ systems are affected.

Pleural Mesothelioma: Common Symptoms
 Verywell / JR Bee

Frequent Symptoms

The predominant form of mesothelioma, pleural mesothelioma, occurs in the pleural mesothelium which is found around the lungs. Many frequent symptoms of mesothelioma are non-specific or may not occur during the initial stage of mesothelioma. Early-to-intermediate symptoms happen when changes in the tissue around the lungs start to cause problems with its overall function. These symptoms include:

  • Trouble catching breath
  • Fluid build-up around the lungs (pleural effusion)
  • Constant dry cough
  • Chest cold symptoms
  • Chest or back pain

Symptoms of later stages of pleural mesothelioma include:

  • Hard lumps in the chest wall or under the skin
  • Lack of energy (possible due to anemia)
  • Weakness or muscle fatigue (asthenia)
  • Loss of appetite and/or unexplained weight loss
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Chronic, low-grade fever (body temperature above 100.4 F)
  • Night sweats or excess sweating during normal activity

However, the majority of people who are diagnosed with mesothelioma are diagnosed before these later symptoms become prevalent. Although advanced cases occur less often, these symptoms may be important to consider.

Timeline and Progression

After an exposure to asbestos, the development of mesothelioma may not become evident for decades. Most cases of asbestos-caused mesothelioma come to light after 20 to 60 years—potentially long after exposure to asbestos has stopped. Overall, mesothelioma is very rare even among people exposed to asbestos, occurring in only 1.6 per 100,000 men and 0.4 per 100,000 women in a study from 2011-2015 and less than 5 percent of people who have been exposed to asbestos.

People who have mesothelioma often experience its symptoms slowly increasing over time. At first, they may notice they have trouble catching their breath even when they are not being active or they may have a cough that won’t go away. While different forms of mesothelioma cause different tell-tale symptoms, many will also experience weight loss, fever, or a general sense that something is wrong as the mesothelioma progresses. Mesothelioma’s symptoms can overlap with other illnesses, and it can be frustrating to not understand what is causing the sickness. 

Other Sites

Other parts of the body—the chest cavity, abdominal cavity, heart, and testicles—are surrounded by mesothelium that can also develop mesothelioma. The symptoms affecting these areas may differ.

Peritoneal mesothelioma is the second most common form of mesothelioma, affecting the mesothelium around the abdominal cavity, also known as the peritoneum. When peritoneal mesothelioma begins to affect the stomach and abdomen it may cause:

  • Loss of appetite (anorexia)
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Trouble catching breath
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Lack of energy (possible due to anemia) 
  • Fluid build-up in the abdomen (ascites)

Mesothelial tissue around the heart (the pericardium) can also be affected by mesothelioma. Symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma include:

  • Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
  • Decreased blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Difficulty breathing (dyspnea)
  • Chest pain (angina)

Mesothelioma shares many of these symptoms with other common forms of cancer. Likewise, the most common mesothelioma, pleural mesothelioma, can be confused for common pneumonia or lung infections. People who have been exposed to asbestos are also at risk of developing pulmonary fibrosis (scarring of the lungs), and differentiating these conditions may be a challenge. Due to the potential overlap in symptoms of these lung diseases, it is best to seek medical help and begin diagnostic testing as soon as possible to receive the best treatment possible.

Rare Symptoms

Very rarely, mesothelioma can occur in the mesothelial tissue of testicles within a structure called the tunica vaginalis. Testicular mesothelioma may cause symptoms that include:

  • Swelling of the testicles
  • Fluid build-up in or around the testicles
  • A hard lump in the testicle

Complications

There are also secondary problems caused by mesothelioma and its treatments that could affect overall health and day-to-day function.

Common side effects of mesothelioma treatment are blood clots and swelling of the face and limbs. After treatment, a health care provider may provide medical aids, equipment, or physical therapy to minimize swelling and its effects on comfort and mobility. 

A complication that can occur in later stages of peritoneal mesothelioma is minor bowel obstruction. It may be associated with constipation, nausea, loss of appetite with early fullness (called satiety), and vomiting. If left untreated, this could become more serious.

When to See a Doctor/Go to the Hospital

If after two to three weeks of cold-like symptoms a cough only seems to be getting worse. or if you are regularly struggling to get enough air, it may be time to see your doctor. While the cause is unlikely to be mesothelioma, testing such as X-ray imaging and a tissue biopsy will help to rule out several causes.

Treatments may quickly resolve common causes of lung disease, such as pneumonia or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and return you to good health. More serious afflictions, including mesothelioma, may require other interventions.

No matter the cause of difficulty breathing or other associated symptoms, it is riskier to wait for the symptoms to worsen than to seek prompt evaluation.

A Word From Verywell

Whether mesothelioma symptoms are present or not, please regularly discuss any potential risk factors (including exposure to asbestos or exposure to radiation) with your health care provider to decide whether regular screening for mesothelioma might be appropriate. If you are at risk of developing mesothelioma, knowing the symptoms of mesothelioma in advance can help to promptly detect and treat the cancer or other similar health problems while they are most treatable. If you are concerned, speak with your doctor and seek the evaluation needed.

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