Conditions That Resemble or Worsen Mesothelioma

The symptoms of mesothelioma often mimic more common conditions. Doctors may misdiagnose mesothelioma as the flu, pneumonia or other illnesses. These conditions can be life-threatening for patients with compromised immune systems, such as those already diagnosed with mesothelioma.

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Mesothelioma has very few symptoms in the early stages. As the cancer progresses, symptoms become more noticeable.

The early warning signs of mesothelioma are often written off as less serious conditions.

Pleural mesothelioma develops on the lining of the lungs. Early signs include a dry cough, difficulty breathing, fever and chest pain — symptoms commonly associated with the flu. The cancer can also mimic symptoms of lower respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia.

Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma, which forms on the lining of the abdomen, can resemble common digestive conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome.

Regardless of the type, misdiagnoses of mesothelioma are common and can delay cancer treatment by several months or even more than a year.

It took a year and a half and five misdiagnoses for peritoneal mesothelioma survivor Kasie Coleman to find the true cause of her severe abdominal pain. Doctors thought she had chlamydia, gallstones and ovarian cancer before she was diagnosed correctly.

Diagnosing mesothelioma accurately and as early as possible leads to more treatment options and longer survival. Most doctors don’t consider mesothelioma when treating a patient with shortness of breath, fever or chest pain, especially if these occur during flu season or if the patient has a history of respiratory infections.

Know the common symptoms of mesothelioma. If you have a history of asbestos exposure — the main cause of the cancer — seek a second opinion from a mesothelioma specialist.

Someone already diagnosed with mesothelioma is more susceptible to complications of the flu or pneumonia. While these conditions go away on their own or are treatable for people in good health, they can have a devastating effect on a patient’s health.

It is important for mesothelioma patients to take steps to avoid viruses and infection.

The Flu

The flu is a viral infection that attacks your respiratory system. While the common cold develops slowly, flu symptoms typically come on suddenly. Symptoms are also more intense and can last longer than the average cold.

Flu Signs That Resemble Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Fever
  • Dry, persistent cough
  • Night sweats
  • Fatigue and weakness

The risk of mesothelioma misdiagnosis increases during flu season. Flu symptoms usually ease up in two to five days, but a mild cough or sore throat can last for two weeks or more.

If flu-like symptoms persist or get worse, see your doctor for another diagnosis, especially if you have a history of asbestos exposure and suspect you may have mesothelioma.

Age can also make distinguishing between the flu and mesothelioma difficult. Adults older than 65 are at higher risk of developing the flu. Most mesothelioma patients are diagnosed at age 65 or older because of the long latency period associated with the cancer.

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The Flu for Mesothelioma Patients

Flu season happens every year. No one wants it, but people who are healthy and get the flu can usually shake it within a week without complications.

It is unknown if cancer patients are more likely to get the flu than other people. However, those diagnosed with a cancer that affects respiratory functions, such as mesothelioma, are at greater risk of having serious problems if they get the flu.

Cancer and cancer treatment can weaken the immune system, which puts patients at a higher risk of developing severe complications from the influenza virus, including:

  • Inflammation in the heart, muscle or brain
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Pneumonia

These complications often require hospitalization and may result in death. The flu virus can also significantly impact cancer care, including delaying treatment regimens such as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

The American Cancer Society recommends getting a flu shot for most people with cancer. However, mesothelioma patients should talk to their doctor first to make sure it’s the right decision. Certain cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, may cause the flu vaccine to not work as well or not work at all.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that family members, caregivers and anyone else who may be around a cancer patient get a flu shot to prevent spreading the virus.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a common lung infection caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi. The flu virus is a common cause of viral pneumonia in adults.

The symptoms of later-stage mesothelioma are very close to symptoms of pneumonia. The most common similarity is pleural effusion, or a buildup of fluid between tissues that line the outer surface of the lungs and the inside of the rib cage.

Pleural fluid that results from pneumonia or lung abscess is known as parapneumonic

effusion (PPE).

According to a 2007 study in Clinical Infectious Diseases, 20 to 57 percent of the 1 million patients hospitalized with pneumonia each year in the U.S. develop PPE.

Pleural effusions occur in approximately 90 percent of pleural mesothelioma cases, causing shortness of breath, dry cough and sharp chest pains. Recurring pleural effusions is a common warning sign of mesothelioma cancer.

Signs of Pneumonia That Resemble Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Pleural effusions
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry cough
  • Fever, which may be mild or high
  • Chest pain
  • Weight loss

Pneumonia for Mesothelioma Patients

Pneumonia can be life-threatening, especially for people diagnosed with cancer. Fighting off the infection can be very challenging for pleural mesothelioma patients.

Contracting pneumonia while battling mesothelioma can result in longer hospital stays, a decreased ability to tolerate treatments and even death.

Identifying pneumonia if you have pleural mesothelioma may be more difficult because the symptoms are so similar.

Precautions You Can Take to Prevent Pneumonia

  • Getting a flu vaccine
  • Washing your hands regularly
  • Not smoking
  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Maintaining a healthy diet

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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a chronic lung disease that makes it hard for you to breathe. The two main types of COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

  • Bronchitis: Increased mucus and inflammation in airways[/li]
  • Emphysema: Destruction and enlargement of air sacs in lungs[/li]

Most people with COPD experience a little bit of both, with a predominance of one or the other. Like with mesothelioma, most people with COPD don’t experience symptoms until the later stages of the disease.

Signs of COPD That Resemble Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Chronic cough
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness or pain in the chest
  • Fatigue

Other symptoms of COPD include blueness in the lips or fingernail beds, frequent respiratory infections and producing a lot of mucus.

Cigarette smoking causes about 85 to 90 percent of all COPD cases. Environmental toxins like pollution, chemical fumes or exposure to asbestos can also trigger the condition. Asbestos exposure is the overwhelming cause of mesothelioma.

COPD for Mesothelioma Patients

It is not uncommon for mesothelioma patients to also have COPD, and the condition may develop before or after the cancer diagnosis.

The causes of the two diseases also overlap. Smoking is the main cause of COPD and can worsen the symptoms of mesothelioma, while asbestos exposure can increase the likelihood of someone developing COPD.

COPD has no cure, but the condition is treatable. Many people live long lives with COPD.

However, COPD can worsen pleural mesothelioma symptoms and make treating the cancer more difficult.

Asthma

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that causes increased mucus and inflammation in airways.

In this way, it is similar to the chronic bronchitis that COPD can cause. However, asthma is usually diagnosed earlier in life and associated with allergies.

There is no cure for asthma, but it can be controlled with medication and therapy. Some children with asthma grow out of it in adulthood.

Asthma Signs That Resemble Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)

Asthma symptoms may be constant, or they may come and go during asthma attacks.

Asthma attacks can be triggered by exercise, stress or exposure to allergens.

Occupational asthma can be caused by exposure to industrial dust, including asbestos. But most cases have nothing to do with asbestos, while mesothelioma is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure.

Asthma for Mesothelioma Patients

Asthma is common, so doctors may misdiagnose pleural mesothelioma signs as asthma symptoms. A delay in diagnosis could lead to more limited treatment options for mesothelioma.

Having asthma at the same time as mesothelioma can make breathing difficulties much worse.

Patients must work with their medical team to make sure their asthma is well controlled during cancer treatment, while avoiding potentially harmful drug interactions.

Conditions That Mimic Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms

Because peritoneal mesothelioma is so rare, doctors commonly misdiagnose it as an illness that shares similar symptoms such as inflammatory bowel disease or irritable bowel syndrome.

Peritoneal mesothelioma is the second-most-common type of the asbestos-related cancer, accounting for roughly 20 percent of all cases.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) refers to two conditions: Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.

Both are characterized by chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, but some differences exist.

  • Ulcerative colitis only occurs in the colon and the rectum. Inflammation is only present in the innermost layer of the lining of the colon.
  • Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract, but usually occurs in the small intestine before the colon. Inflammation can reach through multiple layers of the walls of the gastrointestinal tract.

Signs of IBD That Resemble Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Abdominal pain
  • Persistent diarrhea
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue

A person with peritoneal mesothelioma may be misdiagnosed with IBD because of these symptoms. Even with diagnostic imaging scans like MRIs and CT scans, doctors may mistake tumors for inflammation.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects the large intestine.

Signs of IBS That Resemble Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Abdominal pain
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Diarrhea or constipation (or both)

Unlike IBD, irritable bowel syndrome doesn’t damage the digestive tract or lead to other health problems. The condition can typically be treated by changes in diet, mental health therapies and medicines for diarrhea or constipation.

If symptoms of IBS persist, the cause may be a more serious condition such as IBD or even cancer.

Celiac Disease

An estimated 1 in 133 Americans has celiac disease, according to Beyond Celiac. It is a serious genetic autoimmune disorder where the ingestion of gluten damages the small intestine and makes it hard for the body to absorb essential nutrients.

Gluten is a common protein found in foods like wheat, rye and barley.

Symptoms of celiac disease in adults overlap with many of the symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma.

Signs of Celiac Disease That Resemble Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Anemia

There is no treatment for celiac disease other than maintaining a gluten-free diet. It is estimated that 83 percent of people with the disorder do not know they have it. So, the onset of these symptoms could lead someone to believe they have another digestive condition or possibly a type of gastrointestinal cancer. However, there are several serologic (blood) tests available that can be used to screen for celiac disease antibodies.

Peritoneal mesothelioma patients can also have celiac disease. These patients should maintain a gluten-free diet to avoid worsening common peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms.

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Last Modified September 17, 2018

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 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
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15 Cited Article Sources

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  3. American Lung Association. (2018, March 30). Pneumonia Symptoms, Causes, and Risk Factors.
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  5. Beyond Celiac. (n.d.). CELIAC DISEASE: FAST FACTS.
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  7. Sahn, S. (2007, December 1). Diagnosis and Management of Parapneumonic Effusions and Empyema.
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  9. HealthLine.com. (2015, May 31). Understanding Pneumonia with Lung Cancer.
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  10. American Lung Association. (2017, December 23). What Causes COPD.
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  11. Cleveland Clinic. (n.d.). Conditions Which Can Be Mistaken for Tumors.
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    Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ibd/what-is-IBD.htm
  13. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2018, April 5). Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
    Retrieved from: https://medlineplus.gov/irritablebowelsyndrome.html
  14. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (2017, November). Definition & Facts for Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
    Retrieved from: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/irritable-bowel-syndrome/definition-facts
  15. Celiac Disease Foundation. (n.d.). Celiac Disease Screening and Diagnosis. Retrieved from: https://celiac.org/celiac-disease/understanding-celiac-disease-2/diagnosing-celiac-disease/
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