Symptoms of mesothelioma can often be confused with the symptoms of other diseases. Therefore, it is important to know the potential signs of mesothelioma, especially if you have a history of being exposed to asbestos. By recognizing symptoms right away, mesothelioma patients have a better chance of receiving an early diagnosis, which can improve overall prognosis and life expectancy.
Most Common Symptoms of Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma can take a long time to develop, and the symptoms of the disease often do not present themselves until the cancer has progressed to later stages. Early signs of mesothelioma can be easily mistaken for common, everyday ailments, and as a result, early symptoms are often ignored, dismissed, or misdiagnosed.
Symptoms can also vary significantly based on the type of mesothelioma a person has. The table below provides an overview of the most common signs and symptoms of late-stage mesothelioma based on the location of the tumors.
- Arrhythmia – irregular heartbeat/palpitations
- Chest pain
- Fever/night sweats
- Dyspnea – shortness of breath
Not all of the symptoms listed here will manifest for each type of mesothelioma. However, they can be used as a guide to help doctors find the right diagnosis, or at least know where to begin looking.
Symptoms by Mesothelioma Type
While a few symptoms are common to all types of the disease, mesothelioma symptoms are strongly tied to the location of the mesothelioma tumors in the body.
Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms
The most common form of mesothelioma, pleural mesothelioma develops in the linings of the lungs and accounts for approximately 75 percent of all cases of the disease. Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma often affect breathing and the thoracic cavity(chest), and they can often be taken for problems related to other diseases, such as pneumonia, flu, or even lung cancer.
Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include:
- Chest pain and general body aches
- Chronic coughing
- Pleural effusion – a buildup of fluid linings of the lungs
- Weight loss – especially if sudden and / or unexplained
- Fever and night sweats
Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms
The lining of the abdomen is known as the peritoneum, and this is where peritoneal mesothelioma develops, accounting for approximately one quarter of mesothelioma cases. Because the abdomen contains many different organs, symptoms can vary significantly, depending where within the abdomen tumors occur and which organs may be affected. Symptoms such as loss of appetite, swelling, and abdominal pain can often be confused for diseases related to specific organs or systemic problems, rather than mesothelioma.
Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include:
- Abdominal pain and swelling
- Loss of appetite (anorexia)
- Weight loss – especially if unexpected or sudden
- Ascites – a buildup of fluid in the abdomen
- Anemia – most often in women
- Bowel obstruction
Pericardial Mesothelioma Symptoms
Fewer than 1 percent of mesothelioma cases affect the lining of the heart (the pericardium), and unfortunately in many cases the disease is not diagnosed until after the patient dies. As with other forms of the disease, symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma can often mimic other conditions, such as coronary heart disease, heart failure, or pericarditis (an inflammation of the pericardium).
Symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma include:
- Chest pain
- Pericardial effusion – fluid buildup between the heart and pericardium
- Arrhythmia – an irregular heartbeat or palpitations
- Heart murmur
- Dyspnea – shortness of breath
- Fever and night sweats
Symptoms by Mesothelioma Stage
The latency period for mesothelioma can last for many years, usually decades. This provides a long timeframe during which symptoms can develop, and in many cases they may be confused for symptoms of another condition even after the symptoms begin to occur.
In general, the early stages of the disease present fewer and milder symptoms than the later stages. This is one reason why mesothelioma is so hard to diagnose in the early stages, and why developing early detection techniques is an important area of research.
The tumor is found only in the lining of the lung, abdomen, or heart, and it has not spread to the lymph nodes or other areas of the body. Most people experience no or very mild symptoms at this stage.
The cancer has grown beyond its initial point of origin, and it may have spread to nearby lymph nodes. Certain symptoms such as shortness of breath, weight loss, or chronic coughing are likely to occur, but may still be relatively mild and misdiagnosed.
This advanced stage of mesothelioma is where most diagnoses occur, and where symptoms tend to be taken seriously. Symptoms tend to include chest pain or difficulty breathing(pleural mesothelioma) or abdominal pain and discomfort(peritoneal mesothelioma).
In the most advanced stage, symptoms are severe and can affect many areas of the body. They include pain, difficulty swallowing or breathing, and systemic problems. Treatment for Stage 4 mesothelioma is limited to palliative care to reduce pain.
Signs that Mesothelioma Has Spread
Once mesothelioma has metastasized – that is, spread to other parts of the body well beyond where the first tumor originated – symptoms will often include systemic problems, such as:
- Hemoptysis – coughing up blood
- Laryngeal nerve palsy – a paralysis of the voice box caused by damage to the laryngeal nerve, often causing hoarseness
- Horner’s syndrome – damage to the sympathetic trunk, resulting in certain eye - related conditions
- Other nerve issues in the face or limbs(usually arms)
What If You Have Symptoms of Mesothelioma?
Whenever your body is showing signs of sickness, it is best not to ignore it, regardless of whether you have a rare disease, such as mesothelioma, or a common sickness like the flu. This is especially true if you are experiencing symptoms such as difficulty breathing, abdominal pain, or chest pain, which could point to mesothelioma or another severe condition.
The best thing to do in such cases is to start by talking with your family doctor. Explain to your doctor in as much detail as possible the symptoms you are experiencing, without leaving anything out. The more information your doctor has, the better he or she can diagnose the problem or refer you to a specialist.
If your doctor believes you may have mesothelioma, they will typically refer you to an oncologist, a type of doctor who specializes in cancer diagnosis and treatment. (Since most mesothelioma cases affect the linings of the lungs, this is usually a thoracic oncologist.) Your oncologist will perform a series of diagnostic tests, which may include imaging scans, blood tests, or biopsies, to determine whether you mesothelioma or another form of cancer. Once a diagnosis is confirmed, the oncologist will work with you and your family doctor to develop a treatment plan.
The most important thing, however, is not to ignore any symptoms you may be experiencing. Mesothelioma has a very poor prognosis, and the best thing you can do to improve that prognosis is to catch it early. Telling your doctor about any symptoms as soon as you start experiencing them is the only way to do that.
Things Affecting Mesothelioma Symptom Onset
Several factors influence when and how symptoms of mesothelioma develop. Some of the most important factors are a person’s occupation, the duration of asbestos exposure, and the type of asbestos they were exposed to.
Duration: Individuals who are exposed to asbestos over extended periods of time, such as at a workplace, could develop symptoms sooner than those who are not exposed to the substance on a regular basis.
Amount: Those who experience asbestos exposure in large quantities may be more likely to develop symptoms more quickly than those who are exposed to low levels of asbestos.
Type of Asbestos: In general, crocidolite is considered more hazardous to your health than other forms of asbestos. Crocidolite exposure may lead to mesothelioma symptoms sooner than other asbestos types.
Stage: Different symptoms may show up depending on the stage of the disease. Patients with earlier stages of mesothelioma will often have milder symptoms than those who are diagnosed at a later stage.
Other factors, such as cell type, metastasis(spreading), and duration of exposure to asbestos can affect which symptoms appear and when.
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