What Are the Most Common Mesothelioma Symptoms?

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The most common symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include shortness of breath, fluid buildup and chest pain. Common peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms include bloating, abdominal pain, bowel changes, lack of appetite and unexplained weight loss.

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Mesothelioma expert Dr. Sugarbaker explains the most common mesothelioma symptoms.
Mesothelioma expert Dr. Sugarbaker explains the most common mesothelioma symptoms.

First Signs and Symptoms of Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma begins as tiny nodules on the lining of the lungs or abdomen. The cancer doesn’t cause symptoms until the disease has grown and spread.

First symptoms include shortness of breath, cough and chest pain. They first emerge around stage 3 or stage 4 mesothelioma, when tumors start to press against nerves, organs, bones and other parts of the body.

Because it does not produce signs until much later in the disease process, it is nearly impossible to diagnose mesothelioma in stage 1 or 2 based on symptoms alone.

The most common mesothelioma symptoms include:

  • Dry cough or wheezing
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • Respiratory complications
  • Pain in the chest or abdomen
  • Fever or night sweats
  • Pleural effusion (fluid around the lungs)
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness

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Common Symptoms by Type of Mesothelioma

Some mesothelioma types share similar symptoms, while other signs of the cancer are unique to the tumor location.

Pleural mesothelioma symptoms by frequency.
Frequency of symptoms reported in a 2011 study of 221 pleural patients.

For example, fatigue can be common to pleural, peritoneal and pericardial mesothelioma cancers. However, pericardial mesothelioma is the only type that routinely leads to heart palpitations and arrhythmias.

Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Faint or harsh breathing
  • Dry cough or wheezing
  • Pleural effusions (fluid buildup around the lungs)
  • Coughing up blood (hemoptysis)
  • Body aches and fatigue
  • Blood clotting disorders
  • Chest pains
  • Shortness of breath
  • Reduced chest expansion (difficulty taking a deep breath)

Addressing symptoms as soon as they develop can improve medical outcomes and life expectancy.

When symptoms are identified and treated quickly, patients may benefit from higher quality of life and longer life. Symptom control is a vital component of pleural mesothelioma treatment.

Mary Lyons Pleural mesothelioma survivor diagnosed in 2015

“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.”

LEARN MORE ABOUT PLEURAL MESOTHELIOMA

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal distention (bloating)
  • Hernias (small portion of organ protrudes through the abdominal wall)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling of fullness
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal fluid buildup (ascites)
  • Bowel obstruction (blockage)

Doctors can prescribe chemotherapy drugs, such as pemetrexed, cisplatin, carboplatin and gemcitabine, to shrink peritoneal mesothelioma tumors and slow cancer growth.

Specialists are now seeing extraordinary results with hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC). With excellent symptom control and the best treatments, many people live longer than mesothelioma statistics predict.

LEARN MORE ABOUT PERITONEAL MESOTHELIOMA

Pericardial Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pains
  • Heart palpitations
  • Heart murmurs, palpitations and arrhythmias
  • Fever or night sweats
  • Fatigue

This form of asbestos-related cancer develops in the lining around the heart called the pericardium. It is one of the rarest types of the disease. Symptoms stem from thickening of the pericardium, which can make it harder for the heart to pump efficiently.

LEARN MORE ABOUT PERICARDIAL MESOTHELIOMA

Testicular Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Hydrocele (fluid in the scrotum)
  • Swollen testes
  • Lump in scrotum
  • Testicular pain

A lump in the testes is the most common sign of testicular mesothelioma — the rarest of all types of mesothelioma. It accounts for less than 1% of all mesothelioma cases.

LEARN MORE ABOUT TESTICULAR MESOTHELIOMA

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Symptoms of Mesothelioma by Stage

A mesothelioma patient will experience symptoms that differ from stage 1 to stage 4 mesothelioma. Tumor location and the organs those tumors affect will determine symptoms.

In the early stages of mesothelioma, you may notice:

  1. Dry cough or wheezing
  2. Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  3. Difficulty breathing
  4. Pain in chest or abdomen
  5. Pleural effusion (fluid buildup), leading to worsening pain and breathing difficulties

In the late stages of mesothelioma, you may notice:

  1. Increased and more persistent pain
  2. Anemia and associated fatigue
  3. Weight loss
  4. Loss of appetite
  5. Respiratory complications
  6. Difficulty swallowing
  7. Bowel Obstruction

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Causes of Late-Stage Symptoms

Small tumor size is the main reason mesothelioma patients don’t experience symptoms in the early stages of the cancer’s growth. Mesothelioma tumors typically don’t become big enough to press against body parts until stage 3 or stage 4.

  • Chest pain: Primarily due to tumors spreading into the chest wall.
  • Difficulty breathing: Caused by tumors restricting full expansion of the lungs.
  • Pleural effusion: Results from tumors spreading to lymph nodes, preventing fluid from properly draining out of the pleural lining.

How Can I Cope with Mesothelioma Symptoms?

Mesothelioma symptoms result from the cancer itself and may be similar to some of the side effects of cancer treatment.

Side effects of cancer treatment usually diminish after treatment ends. Mesothelioma symptoms tend to progress if the cancer progresses. Symptom management is critical to quality of life.

Talk to your oncologist about a referral to a palliative care specialist.

These doctors specialize in symptom management and quality of life. Many cancer centers now offer palliative cancer management to patients undergoing treatment or participating in clinical trials.

Steps to Manage Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Nutrition: The right diet for mesothelioma can help patients maintain strength and energy and recover during and after mesothelioma treatments
  • Alternative Therapies: Supportive complementary and alternative treatments, such as acupuncture and mind-body therapies, are shown to help patients manage pain, anxiety and nausea.
  • Mesothelioma Specialists: Mesothelioma is a rare disease and seeking care from a mesothelioma specialty doctor can improve your access to cutting-edge therapies proven to prolong survival after diagnosis.
  • Radiation Therapy: Radiation therapy alone will not cure mesothelioma, but it can shrink tumors and relieve pain and pressure.
  • Communication: Let your doctor know about changes in type or intensity of symptoms. Simple procedures such as draining fluids from your chest or abdomen can be repeated as necessary and will significantly lessen discomfort and pain.
Kasie Coleman Peritoneal mesothelioma survivor diagnosed in 2010

“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.”

Finding a Specialist

If you have a history of exposure to asbestos and believe your symptoms indicate mesothelioma, seek immediate medical attention. Tell your doctor about past work around asbestos and alert them to the possibility of an asbestos-related disease. Ask for a second opinion from a mesothelioma specialist if needed.

How Do Mesothelioma Symptoms Contribute to Diagnosis?

Informing your primary care doctor about any history of asbestos exposure and seeking cancer screenings can help lead to an earlier mesothelioma diagnosis. Catching cancer early provides a better chance of qualifying for life-extending cancer treatments and improved survival.

A 2019 study found that early-stage pleural mesothelioma patients who received less aggressive surgery combined with chemotherapy, radiation therapy or both lived the longest after diagnosis. The median survival of this group was 35 months, or nearly three years.

Mesothelioma cell type, epithelial versus sarcomatoid, does not alter the typical symptoms experienced by most patients with this cancer.

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Registered Nurse and Patient Advocate

Karen Selby joined Asbestos.com in 2009. She is a registered nurse with a background in oncology and thoracic surgery and was the regional director of a tissue bank before becoming a Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center. Karen has assisted surgeons with thoracic surgeries such as lung resections, lung transplants, pneumonectomies, pleurectomies and wedge resections. She is also a member of the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators.

Walter Pacheco, Managing Editor at Asbestos.com
Edited by
Dr. Nestor Villamizar, Assistant Professor of Surgery
Medical Review By

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Last Modified June 21, 2019

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