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Mesothelioma Symptoms

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This page was medically reviewed by Dr. James Stevenson, M.D. on March 19, 2019. For information on our content creation and review process read our editorial guidelines. If you notice an error or have comments or questions on our content please contact us.

Dr. James Stevenson, M.D. Thoracic Medical Oncologist

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Dr. James Stevenson, M.D.

Mesothelioma is a rare disease with symptoms that can mimic other more common conditions, leading to frequent misdiagnosis and delays in diagnosis. Early detection is the only way to improve prognosis for mesothelioma patients, making it important to identify and address symptoms right away.

Though there are common symptoms of mesothelioma, they may vary based on mesothelioma type and staging. There is a long latency period for mesothelioma, meaning it can take 10 – 50 years for these symptoms to emerge.


Common Mesothelioma Symptoms

The best way to improve mesothelioma prognosis is early detection. If patients experience any common symptoms of malignant mesothelioma, they should seek medical evaluation right away. Patients diagnosed at early stages are typically able to undergo more treatment options, extending their life expectancy.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Mesothelioma
  • Abdominal pain and swelling
  • Anemia
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing (dyspnea)
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Fatigue
  • Fever and night sweats
  • Fluid buildup (pleural effusion or peritoneal effusion)
  • Hoarseness
  • Low oxygen level (hypoxemia)
  • Muscle weakness
  • Respiratory complications
  • Unexplained weight loss

There are many factors that can challenge early detection of mesothelioma, including its rarity and long latency period. Symptoms may emerge any time from 10 to 50 years after asbestos exposure, the only known cause of the disease. Other factors that may impact the onset of symptoms include:

  • Duration of exposure: Individuals exposed to asbestos for longer periods of time may experience symptoms sooner than those with one-off exposures.
  • Amount of exposure: Individuals exposed to asbestos in large quantities may develop symptoms sooner than those exposed to low levels.
  • Type of asbestos: Crocidolite is considered to cause a higher risk of health concerns than other types of the mineral, potentially leading to earlier development of symptoms than with other types of asbestos.
  • Other factors: Stage of mesothelioma, cell type and metastasis (how the disease has spread) can also impact when and how symptoms manifest.

Symptoms by Mesothelioma Type

Symptoms may vary greatly for patients based on mesothelioma type, since each type affects a different area of the body. The symptoms a patient is experiencing may help guide physicians during the diagnostic process and provide information on where to conduct imaging scans and biopsies.

Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

Malignant pleural mesothelioma is the most common type, accounting for around 80 – 90% of all mesothelioma cases. Pleural mesothelioma affects the linings of the lungs, and symptoms often affect breathing and the thoracic cavity (chest). These symptoms are often associated with other, more common diseases, such as bronchitis/pneumonia, flu or lung cancer.

Common Pleural Mesothelioma Signs and Symptoms
  • Blood clotting disorders
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Fatigue
  • Fever and night sweats
  • Loss of appetite (anorexia)
  • Persistent cough
  • Pleural effusion (fluid around the lung)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unexplained weight loss

Peritoneal Mesothelioma

Peritoneal mesothelioma occurs in the peritoneum, which is the lining of the abdomen and makes up 10 – 20% of all cases. Symptoms can vary significantly for this type, as peritoneal tumors can affect many organs throughout the abdominal cavity. Symptoms such as loss of appetite, swelling and abdominal pain are often confused with more common conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease.

Common Peritoneal Mesothelioma Signs and Symptoms
  • Abdominal pain and swelling (distention)
  • Anemia
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Fever and night sweats
  • Loss of appetite (anorexia)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Peritoneal fluid (ascites)
  • Unexpected weight loss

Pericardial Mesothelioma

Pericardial mesothelioma makes up less than 1% of all mesothelioma patients and affects the pericardium, or lining of the heart. Due to its rarity and aggressive nature, pericardial mesothelioma is often not diagnosed until the late stages or posthumously during an autopsy.

Common Pericardial Mesothelioma Signs and Symptoms
  • Chest pain
  • Fever and night sweats
  • Heart murmur
  • Irregular heartbeat or heart palpitations (arrhythmia)
  • Pericardial effusion (fluid buildup around the heart)

Testicular Mesothelioma

Also accounting for less than 1% of all mesothelioma cases, testicular mesothelioma affects the tunica vaginalis testis, which is the membrane lining the testes. Because this type is so rare, there are limited case studies available to understand disease progression and typical stage at diagnosis.

Common Testicular Mesothelioma Signs and Symptoms
  • A lump or mass on the testicle
  • Fluid buildup and swelling around the scrotum (hydrocele)
  • Inflammation of the epididymis (epididymitis)
  • Pain in the testes

What to Do If Mesothelioma Symptoms Arise

Patients should seek medical care immediately when symptoms are recognized to pursue evaluation and, if needed, treatment as soon as possible. If the cancer is detected early, aggressive treatments may be an option to improve prognosis. After symptoms emerge, physicians will conduct a physical exam and look at medical history. A history of asbestos exposure may also help guide doctors to a mesothelioma diagnosis and should be brought to their attention immediately.

Imaging scans are often the first step in the diagnostic process that will look for tumors or abnormalities in the body. Blood tests will also be performed to look for biomarkers that can suggest a mesothelioma diagnosis, reveal mesothelioma symptoms or reveal a history of asbestos exposure. Neither of these diagnostic tools can definitively diagnose mesothelioma, which is why a biopsy is required. Biopsy in the form of a fluid or tissue sample from the patient for analysis can then confirm cancer, determine cancer type and cell type, while aiding in staging of the disease.

Treatment of Mesothelioma Symptoms

Once mesothelioma has been confirmed, patients will work with their mesothelioma specialists to determine a treatment plan that will control or remove as much of the cancer as possible, while also treating symptoms to improve quality of life. For example, pleurodesis and paracentesis are common procedures that can be used palliatively to drain fluid buildup, taking pressure off of the lungs and abdominal organs to improve breathing and reduce pain. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy may also be used to reduce or remove tumors, alleviating associated symptoms.

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