Signs & Symptoms of Mesothelioma

Quick Summary

Because mesothelioma can take several decades to develop, its symptoms may go unnoticed. Symptoms often start off vaguely but worsen over time as the cancer spreads throughout the body. By catching the symptoms early, you can be diagnosed properly and start treatments to extend your life.

Detecting Symptoms of Mesothelioma

A deadly result of ingesting or inhaling asbestos fibers, mesothelioma is a disease that can develop in different areas of the body. As a result, the symptoms can vary depending on where the cancer starts. However, most cases of mesothelioma start with mild symptoms that persist and worsen over time.

Sadly, mesothelioma patients rarely notice their symptoms during the early stages of the disease. In fact, it can take 20-50 years for the symptoms to present and for a person to recognize that something is wrong.

Often, mesothelioma is not diagnosed until it has progressed into its more advanced stages. By then, it is more difficult to treat as it has spread to other areas.

The only known cause of mesothelioma is direct or indirect exposure to asbestos.

As is true with all cancers and diseases, early detection offers the best chance for a positive outcome. If mesothelioma is caught in Stage 1 or Stage 2, before it spreads, the tumor may be surgically removed. In this case, patients must be monitored by a doctor and undergo follow-up testing on a regular basis.

If you have been exposed to asbestos in your past, either through work or through what’s known as “take-home” (or “secondhand”) exposure, you should tell your doctor immediately. You should visit your doctor right away if you notice or have experienced any of the following symptoms.

Pleural Mesothelioma — 75% of cases

Pleural mesothelioma affects the lining of the lungs. In its earliest stages, fluid from a tumor collects around the lung. This makes it difficult for the lung to expand. As a result, it can be difficult to breathe normally.

Fluid buildup in the lung lining is one of the most common symptoms of pleural mesothelioma. This fluid buildup is known as a “pleural effusion.” Pleural effusions affect up to 90% of all patients with mesothelioma.

Common symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Fluid buildup in the lung lining
  • General fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight loss

Shortness of breath is usually the first symptom to be noticed. It is followed by other warning signs that can be easily mistaken for pneumonia, a cold or the flu. As a result, the disease may not be diagnosed until it has started to spread.

Symptoms in Stages 1-2

In the first 2 stages of mesothelioma, symptoms can be vague, since the cancer has not yet spread to other areas of the body.

Common symptoms in these stages include:

  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Pleural effusions
  • Shortness of breath and chest pain (60-90% of patients)
  • Weight loss

Symptoms in Stages 3-4

Pleural mesothelioma symptoms will worsen as the disease enters its later stages. By Stage 3 and 4, tumors have grown and spread to other sites within the body. This spread, known as  “metastasis,” can worsen existing symptoms and add new ones.

Common symptoms in these stages include:

  • Coughing up blood
  • Issues with breathing and swallowing
  • Lumps underneath the chest or abdominal area
  • Spinal cord/rib cage pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Worsening chest pain due to tumor buildup

Pleural mesothelioma is the only type of the disease that has a formal staging system. Other forms of mesothelioma are less common, so doctors have not been able to study how they develop as closely. Doctors can make a prognosis for these other forms of mesothelioma based on if they have spread to other areas of the body.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma — 20% of cases

Peritoneal mesothelioma develops in the lining of the abdomen called the peritoneum. This lining protects the stomach and other nearby organs. In most cases, peritoneal mesothelioma is caused by swallowing or ingesting asbestos fibers.

When people consume food or liquids contaminated by asbestos, the fibers get stuck in the digestive tract. Similarly, it can be ingested when people cough up asbestos they inhaled and then swallow their saliva.

Water can become contaminated by asbestos if it flows through asbestos-based cement pipes. If someone drinks this water, they could develop peritoneal mesothelioma.

Once these fibers are lodged in the digestive tract, they can cause inflammation, fluid buildup, and tumors to grow.

Common symptoms include:

  • Abdominal distension (swelling), often described as “feeling bloated”
  • Digestive issues (constipation or diarrhea)
  • Fever, fatigue, and night sweats
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite

Unfortunately, the symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma can be vague and cause a misdiagnosis. It is commonly misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome. However, with mesothelioma, the symptoms worsen over time.

The most common symptom is the expansion of a patient’s abdomen. This is the result of the cancerous tumor growing and filling with fluid. Typically, this abdomen swelling is painful. Over time, the more common symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma worsen. Other, more severe symptoms may also appear.

Severe symptoms include:

  • Blood clotting
  • Cancerous lumps underneath the skin near the abdomen
  • Malnourishment
  • Seizures

Different symptoms may appear if the cancer has spread to major organs like the liver, ovaries, heart, or brain.

Pericardial Mesothelioma — 1% of cases

Pericardial mesothelioma occurs in the lining around the heart. Doctors have the least amount of knowledge and experience about this form of the disease. This is because only 200 cases of pericardial mesothelioma have been documented to date.

However, there are still a few symptoms that may mean you have pericardial mesothelioma.

Symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fluid around the heart
  • Heart palpitations or heart murmurs
  • Persistent coughing
  • Shortness of breath

The most important of these symptoms is fluid buildup in the heart lining. This fluid buildup is known as a “pericardial effusion.” It causes severe chest pains. The heart lining can also thicken and cause severe health problems.

Unfortunately, many of these symptoms are also signs of other illnesses. As a result, doctors may mistake mesothelioma as a heart condition or another disease. Often, the correct diagnosis is not made until surgery or an autopsy is performed.

Know the warning signs of mesothelioma and learn how to take action.

Author:Sokolove Law

The Sokolove Law Content Team is made up of writers, editors, and journalists. We work with case managers and mesothelioma attorneys to keep site information up to date and accurate. Our site has a wealth of resources available for victims of mesothelioma and their families.

Last modified: September 19, 2019