The most common mesothelioma symptom is pleural effusion. This type of fluid buildup occurs in 90% of cases. Symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain or abdominal distress vary by tumor location. Fatigue, weight loss and fever can also occur.
Written by Karen Selby, RN Edited By Walter Pacheco Medically Reviewed By Dr. Jacques Fontaine
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Selby, K. (2023, May 31). Mesothelioma Symptoms. Asbestos.com. Retrieved June 8, 2023, from https://www.asbestos.com/mesothelioma/symptoms/
Selby, Karen. "Mesothelioma Symptoms." Asbestos.com, 31 May 2023, https://www.asbestos.com/mesothelioma/symptoms/.
Selby, Karen. "Mesothelioma Symptoms." Asbestos.com. Last modified May 31, 2023. https://www.asbestos.com/mesothelioma/symptoms/.
What Are Common Symptoms of Mesothelioma?
Pleural effusion is the most common mesothelioma symptom. It occurs in 90% of cases because this cancer often develops in the chest. Fluid build-up in your abdomen is the most common symptom of peritoneal mesothelioma.
- Loss of appetite
- Pain or lumps under the skin
- Swelling or bloating
- Unexplained weight loss
“Most commonly, patients present with cough, shortness of breath, difficulty in walking and loss of stamina,” Dr. Marcelo DaSilva, chief of thoracic surgery and medical director at AdventHealth Cancer Institute, told The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com. “Pleural effusion with fluid compressing the lung causes all those symptoms.”
Many symptoms may feel or look like less severe conditions. If you worked with asbestos or products containing asbestos, you have a higher risk of mesothelioma. When you recognize symptoms, make an appointment with a mesothelioma doctor. Early treatment is more effective in slowing your cancer and improving your survival.
Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms
Pleural mesothelioma forms on the soft tissue lining the outer lung. Pleural plaques or scar tissue are early and common signs of asbestos exposure. These plaques lead to pleural thickening and stiffening. As the pleural space becomes less flexible, the lungs expand less during breathing.
As tumors form, fluid and pressure accumulate in the chest. Symptoms such as chest pain and difficulty breathing can worsen when this happens. Common symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include:
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Difficulty swallowing
- Dry, persistent cough
- Lower back pain
- Muscle weakness
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling of the face and arms
“Many oncologists, primary care providers and even pulmonologists don’t realize that a pleural effusion or shortness of breath and pain could be mesothelioma because it is so rare,” Dr. Jeffrey Velotta, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Kaiser Permanente, told The Mesothelioma Center.
Early symptom management leads to improved life expectancy. Informing your doctor of your symptoms and asbestos history is vital to cancer management.
“We must let [doctors] know what symptoms to look for,” Velotta said. “If they know what to look for, they can refer patients to mesothelioma specialists.”
Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms
Fluid buildup in the abdomen is the most common sign of asbestos cancer in the gut. Peritoneal mesothelioma develops on the soft tissue that lines the abdominal cavity and organs. As tumors form in this region, they can cause bloating, pain, diarrhea and constipation. Common signs and symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include:
- Abdominal fluid buildup (ascites)
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal swelling
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Unexplained weight loss
“I began to feel slight discomfort in the upper abdominal area,” peritoneal mesothelioma survivor Kasie Coleman told The Mesothelioma Center when she was diagnosed in 2010. “My family practitioner said I had probably bruised a rib.”
Seven months later, “the pain was back with a vengeance. I could hardly stand,” Coleman said.
Coleman spent nearly two years with persistent and worsening symptoms because of misdiagnosis. She experienced fluid in the abdomen and extreme pain until she underwent hernia surgery. At that time, doctors found a mass and confirmed her peritoneal mesothelioma diagnosis.
Pericardial Mesothelioma Symptoms
Pericardial mesothelioma symptoms affect the heart. Many of these resemble other heart diseases. Examples include irregular heart rate or angina. Common symptoms are:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing (dyspnea)
- Heart murmurs
- Heart palpitations or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
- Shortness of breath
Pericardial mesothelioma develops in the pericardium, the lining around the heart. It is one of the rarest forms of this cancer. Symptoms appear when the heart sac starts to thicken. The condition makes it harder for the heart to pump blood.
Testicular Mesothelioma Symptoms
Early signs of testicular mesothelioma may feel like a groin injury or other illnesses. A common symptom is inflammation of the testes. This condition can look like epididymitis. Common symptoms include:
- Hydrocele (fluid in the scrotum)
- Lump in the scrotum
- Swollen testes
- Testicular pain
A lump in the testes is the most common sign of testicular mesothelioma. This is the rarest of all types of mesothelioma. It accounts for less than 1% of all mesothelioma cases.
Rare but Serious Signs and Symptoms of Mesothelioma
Some symptoms of mesothelioma may be less noticeable, such as weight loss, but these are no less dangerous. You may have anemia with pale skin, cold extremities or dizziness. Fewer than 10% of patients experience fever or night sweats.
- Blood clots
- Night sweats
- Painful swelling or lumps
- Weight loss
Pleural mesothelioma patients have a higher risk of developing blood clots. Signs of blood clots include redness, pain and swelling on one side. You may also notice strange lumps under the skin. Pleural patients may have pain or swelling along the sides of the chest. Peritoneal patients may see this around the abdomen.
Understanding all these signs can prevent misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis. The Patient Advocates at The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com have talked to thousands of patients and families. Their stories consistently highlight the importance of finding a mesothelioma specialist as soon as symptoms appear.
Symptoms at Different Stages of Mesothelioma
Symptoms of mesothelioma will increase as cancer spreads or metastasizes from the early to late stages. Tumors that develop on distant organs can cause more damage by affecting the diaphragm, cardiac lining or liver.
Stage 1 and Stage 2 Mesothelioma Symptoms
In stage 1 pleural mesothelioma, the cancer is in the lining of one lung or the chest wall. It remains localized to the same side of the body as the initial tumor. Stage 2 tumors have begun to spread beyond their origin.
“Chest pain can indicate that the tumor has invaded the chest wall,” Dr. DaSilva told The Mesothelioma Center.
- Chest or abdominal pain
- Coughing or wheezing
- Fatigue or weakness
- Shortness of breath
Early-stage mesothelioma refers to stages 1 and 2 of the disease. During this time, the cancer is localized and has not yet spread to distant body parts. Most patients have no symptoms during these stages.
Stage 3 and Stage 4 Mesothelioma Symptoms
As cancer progresses in stages 3 and 4, or late-stage mesothelioma, tumors go deeper into tissues. Symptoms become more noticeable. Cancer cells may spread throughout the body. You may experience less control due to pain, weakness or breathing difficulty. Caregiving at these stages becomes more challenging.
- Anemia and associated fatigue
- Bowel obstruction
- Difficulty swallowing
- Fever or night sweats
- Loss of appetite
- Respiratory complications
- Severe or persistent pain
- Weight loss
Fever can be a sign that the body is fighting cancer cells. It is also a common side effect of cancer treatments and may signal an infection. Chemotherapy weakens the immune system. The treatment leaves patients more vulnerable to viruses and bacteria. For caregivers, food safety and personal hygiene become critical at these stages.
Treating Symptoms of Mesothelioma
Therapies that treat symptoms of mesothelioma include surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation therapy. Targeted or gene therapy may also be effective. The Patient Advocate team at The Mesothelioma Center notes that patients have concerns about treatment side effects. Many worry they may be as bad or worse than their current symptoms.
Patient Advocate Dr. Snehal Smart shared that mesothelioma patients often ask her, “Will chemo or immunotherapy infusions make me sicker than what I am already feeling?” During treatment, side effects can limit your daily activities. A good treatment plan, including pain management, will take into account your health and specific symptoms.
Palliative therapy can help ease severe pain, shortness of breath and fatigue. It also addresses patients’ and families’ physical, emotional and spiritual needs. It can improve your quality of life and allow you to perform more activities you enjoy.
“Patients want to know how long they will have to go through treatment,” noted VA-accredited claims agent and Patient Advocate Danielle DiPietro. “Surgical patients are concerned about whether it is ‘worth it’ and their quality of life after surgery.”
Mesothelioma can cause significant pain and discomfort. Pain medications can address neuropathic, bone and visceral pain.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, called NSAIDs
- Adjuvant medications
“Patients are sometimes challenged with taking pain medication as they worry about being addicted,” said registered nurse and Patient Advocate Karen Selby.
Consulting with a pain management specialist is the best way to ease concerns about pain medication.
Complementary techniques can help manage pain and improve stress alongside standard treatment. These options should not replace traditional cancer care.
- Physical therapy
Gentle exercise and activities such as mild yoga or meditation are often helpful. Try to avoid activities or positions that worsen the pain.
Nutrition and General Health
Good nutrition is a vital concern for mesothelioma patients. A healthy diet helps the immune system. It can also increase energy levels. You may have a low appetite, nausea, vomiting or trouble swallowing during treatment.
- Avoid foods labeled as low-fat, nonfat and low-calorie.
- Eat protein-rich foods regularly.
- Work with a registered dietitian to create a tailored nutrition plan.
“Losing the desire to eat is extremely common,” registered and licensed dietitian Tejal Parekh explained. “Several changes can cause this, including the stress of a diagnosis, the treatment and the side effects or pain that the tumor causes. Excess weight loss can lead to delayed healing after surgery and longer recovery between chemo cycles.”
Supportive therapies help patients and families cope with mesothelioma’s emotional and psychological effects. Patients may experience a range of emotions. They may feel fear, anxiety and depression.
- Mental health counseling
- Support groups
Support groups and organizations can provide a sense of community, emotional support and a safe space for patients.
When Should I See a Doctor?
If you have ever been near asbestos, pay attention to your symptoms. Many could correlate to mesothelioma or other asbestos-related illnesses. Also, watch for rare signs, such as fever, weight loss or anemia.
See a doctor immediately if you have chest pain, abdominal pain or other symptoms. This is especially important if you have a history of asbestos exposure. Early detection of mesothelioma can improve treatment outcomes. It is vital not to ignore symptoms or delay seeking medical attention.
Common Questions About Mesothelioma Symptoms
- When do mesothelioma symptoms start?
Mesothelioma symptoms tend to present between 20 and 60 years after asbestos exposure. This delay is known as the latency period. The signs also mimic many common diseases. These factors make a mesothelioma diagnosis challenging for unspecialized doctors.
- Can you have mesothelioma and not know it?
Yes, you may have mesothelioma without any symptoms. Many mesothelioma symptoms are mild and mimic the flu or a stomach virus. Most only appear decades after asbestos exposure. Doctors may also misdiagnose this rare cancer as other illnesses, delaying your mesothelioma diagnosis.
- What are early warning signs that malignant mesothelioma is developing?
Early signs of pleural mesothelioma include a dry, persistent cough and shortness of breath. Some patients may have nausea, constipation or diarrhea with peritoneal cancer. Every patient is different. Talk to your doctor as soon as you notice any changes to your health.
- Can mesothelioma symptoms come on suddenly?
Yes, some mesothelioma symptoms may occur suddenly. Some patients do not experience symptoms until the cancer has spread to another organ, such as the kidneys or liver. The cancer location determines the type and severity of symptoms you may have.