What Are the Most Common Mesothelioma Symptoms?

Unfortunately, asbestosis and mesothelioma symptoms, like coughing, chest pain and difficulty breathing, 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.

  • Most Common Mesothelioma Symptoms

    • Dry Cough or Wheezing
    • Shortness of Breath
    • Respiratory Complications
      or Difficulty Breathing
    • Stomach Pain icon
      Pain in the Chest or Abdomen
    • Fever icon
    • Pleural Effusions icon
      Pleural Effusions
    • Anemia icon
    • Muscle Weakness icon
      Muscle Weakness
    View Symptoms by Cancer Location
  • Symptoms of Advanced Mesothelioma Include:

    • Chest Pain
    • Weight Loss
    • Respiratory Complications
    More Advanced Symptoms

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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Common Mesothelioma Symptoms by Type

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.

  • Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

    • Chest Pains
    • Shortness of Breath
    • Reduced Chest Expansion
    • Faint or Harsh Breathing Sounds
    • Dry Cough or Wheezing
    • Pleural Effusions
    • Coughing Up Blood
    • Body Aches
    • Blood Clotting Disorders

    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:

    Mesothelioma Symptoms
  • Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms

    • Weight Loss
    • Abdominal Distention
    • Hernias
    • Loss of Appetite
    • Feeling of Fullness
    • Abdominal Swelling / Tenderness
    • Fatigue
    • Abdominal Fluid Buildup
    • Bowel Obstruction

    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:

    Mesothelioma Symptoms
  • Pericardial Mesothelioma Symptoms

    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.

    • Difficulty Breathing
    • Chest Pains
  • Testicular Mesothelioma Symptoms

    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.

When Do Mesothelioma Symptoms Emerge?

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.

Timeline for Mesothelioma Symptoms Emerging

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.

Early Mesothelioma Symptoms Are Hard to Detect

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.

Mesothelioma Symptoms Are Often Misdiagnosed

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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What Symptoms Indicate the Cancer Has Spread?

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:

Common Symptoms Relating to Local Asbestos Cancer Invasion

  • Dysphagia
    (difficulty swallowing)

  • Superior Vena Cava Syndrome
    (obstruction of the vein that returns blood from the upper body to the heart)

  • Laryngeal nerve palsy

  • Horner's syndrome
    (nerve damage to face)

  • Hypoglycemia
    (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.

Additional Resources

Karen Selby is a registered nurse and a Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center. She worked in several subspecialties within nursing before joining Asbestos.com in 2009.

  1. Legha, S. and Muggia, F. (1977, November 1). Pleural Mesothelioma: Clinical Features and Therapeutic Implications. Retrieved from http://www.annals.org/content/87/5/613.short
  2. Moore, A., Parker, R. and Wiggins, J. (2008, December 19). Malignant Mesothelioma. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2652430/?tool=pubmed
  3. Acherman, Y.I., Welch, L.S., Bromley, C.M. and Sugarbaker, P.H. (2003, May). Clinical Presentation of Peritoneal Mesothelioma. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12908781
  4. Munkholm-Larsen, S., Cao, C. and Yan, T. (2009, November). Malignant Peritoneal Mesothelioma. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2999110/?tool=pubmed
  5. Taioli, E., Wolf, A., Moline, J., Camacho-Rivera, M. and Flores, R. (2015, April 30). Frequency of Surgery in Black Patients with Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4430630/
  6. Marinaccio, A. et al. (2006). Il Rapporto del Registro Nazionale dei Mesoteliomi. Roma Edizioni: Gruppo di Lavoro ReNaM.

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