Unfortunately, asbestosis and mesothelioma symptoms, mirror many other types of lung-related diseases. Symptoms can be different based on the type of cancer and can be vague and mild even as the disease progresses into a later stage. Early signs can be so slight that they are mistaken as normal aches and pains or symptoms of other illnesses, making asbestos-related cancer hard to detect.
By the time someone identifies warning signs, the cancer often has spread, making it difficult for doctors to treat. Recognizing symptoms early and informing your doctor about any history of asbestos exposure can help lead to an earlier-than-normal diagnosis and a much better chance of a potentially curative therapy.
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Some warning signs of these diseases match those of other cancers, including a loss of appetite and weight loss. But the various types and subtypes of asbestos-related cancers do manifest in ways that are unique.
The exact stage of the cancer at the time of diagnosis — how far it has progressed — has the most impact on life expectancy. Most patients are not diagnosed until stage III or IV because symptoms can remain hidden. The earlier the cancer is caught, the better the prognosis.
A 2015 study investigating differences in mesothelioma survival by ethnicity found early stage diagnosis, younger age and surgery are each associated with longer survival in whites and blacks. The study used National Cancer Institute data on pleural mesothelioma patients from 1973 to 2009.
In a 2011 study of 221 pleural patients, symptoms were reported with the following frequency:
Peritoneal mesothelioma, which develops in the thick lining around the abdominal cavity and accounts for an estimated 20 percent of cases, is associated with a loss of appetite that often results in weight loss, abdominal distention/pelvic mass and abdominal hernias.
Other signs can include stomach pains, abdominal swelling or tenderness, a feeling of fullness and fatigue. Bowel obstruction is another warning sign. It can signal the progression of tumors beyond the original location.
In a 2009 study, involving 119 peritoneal patients, symptoms were reported with the following frequency:
This form of asbestos-related cancer, which develops in the lining around the heart, is one of the rarest types of the disease. Symptoms are similar to those of pleural mesothelioma and include difficulty breathing and chest pains. They stem from thickening of the pericardium, the lining around the heart.
A lump in the testes is the only consistent sign of this type, the rarest of all types, accounting for less than 1 percent of all mesothelioma cases.
Symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos cancers first emerge in small, subtle ways. Some are so minor that people and their doctors take them as symptoms of some other disorder or shrug them off entirely. These small signals don't become noticeable to people until 20 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos. All of these forms of cancer take decades to develop, and symptoms usually don't make an impact on someone's life until after tumors have already started to spread. Most people who get mesothelioma – of any type – are diagnosed in stage III or stage IV, considered late stages.
Although the decades-long latency period is similar with each type, some studies suggest it is shorter for people with the peritoneal form of the disease. A study from 2011 found that women have a longer latency period than men.
Many patients don't understand the early symptoms of mesothelioma. They only seek medical advice when symptoms intensify, which is why much of the mesothelioma research today involves finding better ways to secure an earlier diagnosis, when it can be treated more effectively. There is considerable support for early screening for those with prolonged, occupational exposure to asbestos.
Nonspecialists often mistake pleural mesothelioma for less serious conditions like pneumonia, bronchial infection and COPD. People with peritoneal mesothelioma may initially be diagnosed with ovarian cancer or irritable bowel syndrome. Pericardial mesothelioma is so rare doctors can easily confuse it with heart failure, coronary heart disease and other common heart illnesses.
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Symptoms that indicate the cancer has spread often do not show up in the affected area. The symptoms most closely related to local invasion of cancer include:
Superior Vena Cava Syndrome
(obstruction of the vein that returns blood from the upper body to the heart)
Laryngeal nerve palsy
(nerve damage to face)
(low blood sugar)
Nerve Involvement of the arm
If you have a history of asbestos exposure and believe you have signs of mesothelioma, seek immediate medical attention. Tell your doctor about your exposure and alert them to the possibility of an asbestos-related disease. You will likely need to get a second opinion from a mesothelioma specialist.
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