Mesothelioma Symptoms

Quick Summary

Mesothelioma symptoms depend on the location of the cancer. Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma are difficulty breathing, coughing, and flu-like symptoms. Peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms include bloating, loss of appetite, and abdominal pain.

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Mesothelioma Signs and Symptoms

Malignant mesothelioma has many nonspecific symptoms that make it easy for inexperienced doctors to misdiagnose.

Patients may even ignore signs of mesothelioma, mistaking them for a common cold or other minor illnesses.

Common symptoms of mesothelioma include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fever or night sweats
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing or dry cough

United States military veterans have some of the highest risk factors for developing mesothelioma. They are at risk more than the general population because of their prolonged exposure to asbestos while on duty.

For this reason, veterans with known exposure to asbestos should get regular cancer screenings.  Getting cancer screenings when noticing symptoms of mesothelioma can lead to early detection that can improve veterans’ life expectancies.

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Pleural vs Peritoneal Symptoms of Mesothelioma

There are two primary types of mesothelioma: pleural and peritoneal.

  • Pleural mesothelioma develops in the lining of the lungs (pleura). Its symptoms are primarily located in the chest or chest wall because that is where this type of cancer first develops. Patients with pleural mesothelioma have respiratory-related symptoms, such as a cough and shortness of breath.
  • Peritoneal mesothelioma develops in the lining of the abdomen (peritoneum). Its symptoms are usually located in the abdominal region. Patients with peritoneal mesothelioma have abdominal-related symptoms, such as bloating and constipation.

Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

The most common symptoms of malignant pleural mesothelioma are dry cough or wheezing, shortness of breath (dyspnea), and other respiratory problems.

“Most patients […] will have a cough or pain or decrease[d] exercise, and they’ll be treated by their physicians for, potentially, common cold.”

– Dr. R. Taylor Ripley, Mesothelioma Specialist

Other, more severe symptoms of mesothelioma can develop depending upon the stage of the disease. Pleural mesothelioma has four stages.

Early-Stage Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

Stage 1 mesothelioma and stage 2 mesothelioma are considered the early stages of the cancer. In these stages of mesothelioma, the cancer cells have not spread far from their original site of development through the lymph nodes or the bloodstream.

Common early-stage symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Chest pain

In the early stages of pleural mesothelioma (stages 1 and 2), symptoms can be nonexistent or mild. Many patients don’t recognize these early symptoms as signs of cancer.

Late-Stage Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

Late-stage mesothelioma is usually defined as stage 3 mesothelioma and stage 4 mesothelioma. Many symptoms of pleural mesothelioma first appear during these stages. Stage 4 is also known as the final stage or end-stage.

Common late-stage symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include:

  • Anemia
  • Coughing up blood (hemoptysis)
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Face or arm swelling
  • Fever
  • Hoarseness
  • Night sweats
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)

As malignant mesothelioma tumors grow, they press against the lungs and other areas around the chest. This can cause chest pain, tiredness, and a cough that will not go away. It can also result in significant fluid buildup around the lungs, called pleural effusions.

Pleural effusions restrict a patient’s ability to fully expand their lungs and get a deep breath. This fluid buildup in the chest requires removal through draining.

A 2007 study from the Department of Interventional Pulmonology at Harvard Medical School examined 185 patients who underwent surgery to drain fluid from their lungs.

Did you know?

An average of 1.67 liters of fluid was drained from the lungs of each patient — almost as much as a 2-liter bottle of soda.

Whether a patient has early- or late-stage mesothelioma, a proper diagnosis gives them the best shot at improving their prognosis and quality of life.

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Diagnosing Pleural Mesothelioma

Doctors first perform imaging scans to understand a pleural mesothelioma patient’s symptoms and what may be causing them.

Patients may be prescribed: 

  • Computed tomography (CT) scans
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scans

From there, an experienced doctor must perform a tissue biopsy or a fine needle biopsy to make a clear mesothelioma diagnosis.

Pleural Mesothelioma Treatments for Symptom Relief

Pleural mesothelioma treatments, designed to relieve symptoms and extend a patient’s life, may take the form of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or other methods.

Pleural Mesothelioma Curative Treatments

Curative treatments are medical procedures that doctors perform with the goal of helping a patient live longer. Some curative treatments may also relieve symptoms, but that is not their primary goal.

Common curative treatments for this type of mesothelioma include:

Doctors perform curative treatments to remove as many of the tumors as possible — from the lungs or other areas in the body.

Pleural Mesothelioma Palliative Treatments

Palliative treatments are designed to reduce symptoms of mesothelioma and help patients live more comfortably.

Palliative treatments for pleural mesothelioma may include:

  • Pleurodesis: This procedure involves removing extra fluid from the lung lining and sealing the lining to prevent more fluid buildup.
  • PleurX catheter: This small silicone catheter is inserted into regions where fluids buildup and drains them. This allows patients to drain any buildup of fluid from the comfort of their home every couple of days.
  • Radiation: Through radiation therapy, X-rays or gamma rays are used to shrink the mesothelioma tumors that are causing pain in the chest.
  • Thoracentesis: This procedure drains the excess fluid that builds up between the pleura and the lungs, helping relieve symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath.

Both curative and palliative treatments for pleural mesothelioma may be available through clinical trials.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms

Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma intensify as the cancer spreads through the abdomen. Unlike pleural, peritoneal mesothelioma is not diagnosed according to stages.

Common symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include:

  • Bloating
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Constipation
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Fluid buildup in abdomen (ascites)
  • Lumps of tissue beneath the skin
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Night sweats
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Shortness of breath
  • Strange weight loss

Most patients with peritoneal mesothelioma complain of abdominal distension (bloating) before their other symptoms.

In fact, the most commonly reported symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma are bloating and pain in the abdomen, which occur in at least 30% to 50% of all patients.

Diagnosing Peritoneal Mesothelioma

Like pleural mesothelioma, specialists must perform a tissue biopsy or a fine needle biopsy to diagnose peritoneal mesothelioma.

They may also use other tests and imaging scans to aid them in their diagnosis.

These tests can include: 

  • CT scans
  • MRI scans
  • PET scans
  • Biopsies

Most peritoneal mesothelioma patients are diagnosed after the cancer has spread, limiting treatment options to palliative care.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Treatments for Symptom Relief

Treatments for peritoneal mesothelioma vary depending on how far the cancer has spread through the body.

Learn about different treatment options for peritoneal mesothelioma below.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Curative Treatments

Veterans or civilians diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma may be eligible to pursue a treatment called cytoreduction with HIPEC if their cancer is diagnosed early on.

Cytoreduction with HIPEC (hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy) combines two techniques designed to remove tumors.

The first part is called debulking, which is a surgery used to remove visible tumors by hand. The second part adds the use of heated chemotherapy to kill the remaining cancer cells on contact.

Many patients have experienced significant life extension, and while this procedure is not a cure, it can increase patient lifespans and ease symptoms.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Palliative Treatments

Patients can also receive palliative treatments to lessen painful symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma and the side effects of major treatments.

Palliative treatments for peritoneal mesothelioma include:

  • Alternative therapy: This may include acupuncture, massage, proper nutrition, and more. It is not a substitute for medical intervention.
  • Surgery: Cytoreduction removes tumors and relieves symptoms.
  • Chemotherapy: When a patient’s tumor cannot be fully removed through surgery, chemotherapy may be administered after the procedure to kill remaining cancer cells.
  • Pain medication: Patients may receive prescription painkillers to help them manage their pain. These medications should be taken under the supervision of the patient’s doctor.
  • Paracentesis: This procedure involves draining fluid from the bloated abdominal cavity.

Veterans with advanced peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms should ask their care team how palliative treatments can help.

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  • Treatment Options
  • Mesothelioma Specialists
  • Veterans Benefits

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Delayed Symptoms of Mesothelioma

Asbestos Exposure
To Asbestos
Lungs SymptomsSymptoms Appear20-50 Years After Exposure

Mesothelioma can take 20 to 50 years to develop after someone is exposed to asbestos.

The reason why mesothelioma takes so long to develop is that asbestos fibers take decades to cause mutations in healthy cells. This length of time between exposure and cancer development is called the latency period.

While mesothelioma takes a long time to begin developing, once it starts, it advances quickly and spreads aggressively.

Symptoms of asbestos-related diseases, such as shortness of breath, coughing, and chest pain, often do not appear until 20 to 50 years after the exposure.

– U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Many veterans are diagnosed with mesothelioma long after their cancer has grown. The best way to increase a patient’s treatment options — and, in turn, their lifespan — is through early detection.

Early Detection of Mesothelioma

Veterans with a history of asbestos exposure in the military should talk to their doctor about their exposure history, especially if they experience symptoms of mesothelioma.

Former service members may be able to get an accurate diagnosis through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system.

Why Reporting Symptoms of Mesothelioma Is Important

For veterans who report their mesothelioma symptoms and are officially diagnosed, there are VA benefits for mesothelioma available to them and their families that can cover many costs of living and treatment.

Mesothelioma disability benefits are also available and are usually rated at 100% (over $3,000/month) for veterans with a confirmed diagnosis who have been honorably discharged.

Less Common Mesothelioma Types

Pleural mesothelioma and peritoneal mesothelioma make up the vast majority of cases, but there are two additional types of mesothelioma worth noting.

Pericardial Mesothelioma Symptoms

Some veterans develop pericardial mesothelioma (which forms around the lining of the heart) in rare cases.

Symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma include:

  • Cough
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fever and night sweats
  • Fluid buildup around heart lining
  • Heart murmurs
  • Heart palpitations
  • Weight loss

Most of these symptoms appear when fluid buildup presses on the heart or as tumors spread throughout the body.

Diagnosing Pericardial Mesothelioma

Many pericardial mesothelioma cases are diagnosed during an autopsy, likely because the disease is so rare and symptoms appear after the cancer has spread.

If a doctor does confirm a diagnosis while the patient is still living — which happens about 10% to 20% of the time — they will usually recommend surgery and palliative treatments to manage symptoms.

Testicular Mesothelioma Symptoms

Testicular mesothelioma is the rarest form of this cancer and develops the lining of the testicles (tunica vaginalis).

Symptoms of testicular mesothelioma can include:

  • A buildup of strange masses on the testicles
  • Hydroceles (fluid buildup in the scrotum)
  • Swelling of the testicles

Testicular mesothelioma tumors can grow for long periods before these symptoms develop.

Diagnosing Testicular Mesothelioma

Doctors may use imaging tests like CT scans, ultrasounds, and MRIs to determine if a patient’s symptoms stem from testicular mesothelioma. After these tests, a biopsy can confirm if the patient has this type of cancer.

Testicular mesothelioma is often treated with surgery followed by radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Palliative treatments may also be an option for patients with testicular mesothelioma.

Get Tested at a Local VA Clinic

Veterans who were exposed to asbestos fibers and believe they may have mesothelioma should schedule an appointment at their local VA clinic. Laboratory services, available at VA hospitals and clinics, enable accurate results to provide a confident diagnosis.

Mesothelioma Veterans GuideGet a FREE Veterans Packet

Get information on:

  • Treatment Options
  • Mesothelioma Specialists
  • Veterans Benefits

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Visit a Veterans Mesothelioma Specialist

The VA health care system works with many of the nation’s best doctors to help veterans manage symptoms of mesothelioma and live longer.

These specialists include:

  • Dr. Abraham “Avi” Lebenthal: Dr. Lebenthal treats veterans with mesothelioma at the Boston VA and at the mesothelioma cancer center, Brigham & Women’s Hospital. As a veteran of the Israeli army, Dr. Lebenthal understands the unique challenges veterans face.
  • Dr. Robert B. Cameron: Based out of the West Los Angeles VA, Dr. Cameron has over 20 years of experience treating pleural mesothelioma.

Visit the UCLA Health website to learn more about Dr. Robert Cameron.


The Mesothelioma Veterans Center has no affiliation with and is not endorsed or sponsored by Dr. Robert B. Cameron. The contact information above is listed for informational purposes only. You have the right to contact Dr. Cameron directly.

We Can Help You

If you or a loved one believes they may have mesothelioma, contact our team to learn your next steps.

Our veteran support team is here to help you understand your symptoms and give you accurate information about the best treatments.

Contact the Mesothelioma Veterans Center at (877) 450-8973 or submit your information here: Get help filing for VA benefits.

Veterans Support Team
Todd Gersten, MD PhotoReviewed by:Todd Gersten, MD

Double Board-Certified Oncologist and Hematologist

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Todd Gersten, MD is a double board-certified medical oncologist and hematologist specializing in general adult oncology and hematologic disease. He is a physician partner with the Florida Cancer Specialists and practices in Wellington, Florida.

Dr. Todd Gersten is an independently paid medical reviewer.

Christopher Dryfoos PhotoWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos is a journalist and member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). As the grandson of the U.S. Navy’s first forensic pathologist, he aims to help veterans with mesothelioma access needed care.

View 6 Sources
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  3. American Cancer Society. “Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging.” Retrieved from: Accessed on May 13, 2020.
  4. American Society of Clinical Oncology. “Mesothelioma Treatment Options.” Retrieved from: Accessed on May 13, 2020.
  5. Feller-Kopman, David, et al. “Large-Volume Thoracentesis and the Risk of Reexpansion Pulmonary Edema.” The Annals of Thoracic Surgery, vol. 84, no. 5, 2007, pp. 1656–1661., doi:10.1016/j.athoracsur.2007.06.038.
  6. US Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Health Administration. “ Veterans Affairs.” Protect Your Health, 6 Dec. 2013,
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