The first symptoms of mesothelioma include chest or abdominal pain, bloating and shortness of breath, depending on the location of the cancer. Because early-stage signs can be slight, doctors often mistake them as normal aches and pains or symptoms of less serious illnesses.
Mesothelioma tumors begin as tiny nodules on the lining of the lungs or abdomen. The cancer doesn’t cause symptoms until the tumors have grown and spread, usually around cancer stage III and IV, and they begin to press against the chest wall or abdominal cavity.
Recognizing mesothelioma symptoms early in the cancer’s development is nearly impossible because the disease doesn’t produce early symptoms to identify.
But when signs of the cancer start to arise, the most common mesothelioma symptoms include:
Most early mesothelioma diagnoses happen by accident through routine X-rays or blood tests. By the time someone identifies warning signs, the cancer often has spread, making it difficult for doctors to treat.
Informing your primary care doctor about any history of asbestos exposure and seeking cancer screenings can help lead to an earlier-than-normal mesothelioma diagnosis and a much better chance of a potentially curative therapy.
The exact stage of the cancer at the time of diagnosis — how far it has progressed — is impossible to predict through symptoms alone. Most patients are not diagnosed until stage III or IV because symptoms don’t develop until later stages. The earlier the cancer is caught, the better the prognosis.
Addressing symptoms as soon as they develop is can improve medical outcomes. When symptoms are identified and treated quickly, patients often benefit from higher quality of life and may live longer if the symptoms and cancer are controlled sooner.
In a 2011 study of 221 pleural patients, symptoms were reported with the following frequency:Learn more about pleural mesothelioma
Doctors can provide chemotherapy drugs that shrink peritoneal mesothelioma tumors and slow the growth and spread of cancer. It can be given before, during or after surgery. In some cases, doctors offer chemotherapy as the only treatment option. Chemotherapy drugs considered effective in treatment include pemetrexed, cisplatin, carboplatin and gemcitabine.
Doctors are now seeing extraordinary results with HIPEC. Once an experimental treatment, HIPEC starts with surgery to remove all visible tumors from the patient’s peritoneum. Next, doctors introduce a heated salt-water solution that contains chemotherapy drugs.
A machine pumps the medicine throughout the patient’s abdomen, helping destroy any cancer cells left behind after surgery. Nearly half of peritoneal mesothelioma cancer patients who receive HIPEC can live at least five years after diagnosis.Learn more about peritoneal mesothelioma
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.Learn more about pericardial mesothelioma
A lump in the testes is the most common sign of testicular mesothelioma — the rarest of all types. It accounts for less than 1 percent of all mesothelioma cases.Learn more about testicular mesothelioma
Symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos cancers first emerge in small, subtle ways after the cancer has spread. Some are so minor that people and their doctors mistake them as symptoms of some other disorder or shrug them off entirely. These small signals don’t develop until 20 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos, known as the latency period.
Mesothelioma takes decades to develop, and symptoms usually don’t make an impact on someone’s life until the cancer has reached a late stage. Most people who get mesothelioma of any type are diagnosed in stage III or stage IV, which are considered late or end stages.
“I had gotten to the point where I couldn’t walk without being out of breath. It scared the heck out of me. But having my lung drained was immediate relief. I felt so much better.”
— Mary Lyons, pleural mesothelioma survivor diagnosed in 2015
Although the decades-long latency period is similar with each type of the cancer, some studies suggest it is shorter for people with peritoneal mesothelioma. A 2011 study found women have a slightly longer latency period than men.
Nonspecialists often mistake pleural mesothelioma for less serious conditions such as 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 that doctors can easily confuse it with heart failure, coronary heart disease and other common heart illnesses.
“I feel lucky, but I don’t feel like a miracle. I’ll reserve miracles for bigger and better things than me. I’m just a grateful guy today who thinks every day I wake up is a gift.”
— John Owens, pleural mesothelioma survivor diagnosed in 2008
A mesothelioma misdiagnosis can delay proper treatment. Anyone with a history of asbestos exposure should inform their primary care physician of their exposure and ask for annual cancer screenings. If you develop any abdominal or pulmonary issues in your lifetime, make sure to mention your asbestos exposure history to the medical professionals who provide your care.
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Symptoms that indicate the cancer has spread in the affected area, such as nerve pain that shoots down an arm, may not show up. Mesothelioma tends to spread locally throughout the chest or abdominal cavity more often than spreading to distant locations throughout the body.
If you have a history of asbestos exposure and believe you have symptoms 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.
Rebuilding and getting back to ‘normal’ isn’t a race for the swift. It’s for those who can endure the highs and lows. There are small victories and setbacks. But eventually, the battle is won.
— Kasie Coleman Peritoneal mesothelioma survivor diagnosed in 2010
Mesothelioma symptoms result from the cancer itself and may overlap with side effects caused by cancer treatment such as nausea related to chemotherapy. Side effects of cancer treatment usually fade away after the treatment ends. Mesothelioma symptoms tend to progress along with the cancer, making symptom management critical to quality of life.
Talk to your oncologist about working with a palliative care specialist, a doctor whose expertise lies in managing symptoms and improving quality of life. Many cancer centers now offer palliative care to patients undergoing treatment, even those participating in clinical trials.
Joining the team in February 2008 as a writer and editor, Michelle Whitmer has translated medical jargon into patient-friendly information at Asbestos.com for more than eight years. Michelle is a registered yoga teacher, a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, and was quoted by The New York Times on the risks of asbestos exposure.
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