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Mesothelioma Symptoms

Mesothelioma often mimics other lung diseases and there are very few symptoms of mesothelioma that are unique to the disease. As a result, it can be difficult to diagnose mesothelioma just based on symptoms alone.

Symptoms of Mesothelioma

man coughing

Mesothelioma is usually located inside the chest cavity, but some cases are present in the abdominal cavity.

Chest mesothelioma is referred to as pleural mesothelioma and abdominal mesothelioma is referred to as peritoneal mesothelioma. The two types of mesothelioma share a few symptoms, but both also have some unique signs of their own.

Often a chest X-ray, CT scan or MRI scan need to be performed to display the presence of the mesothelioma cancer. Only when mesothelioma is in its advanced stage does it become clear that something more serious is going on.

Common Mesothelioma Symptoms

The early signs of mesothelioma can be so minimal that an individual believes they are suffering from a respiratory infection or pain from a musculoskeletal strain. This is why mesothelioma is often not diagnosed until it has reached the advanced stages.

Common symptoms of mesothelioma include:

  • Wheezing or dry cough. This is from irritation of the lung and pleural lining tissue. Unfortunately, this is a similar symptom one would have with an acute respiratory infection, chronic bronchitis from smoking, or asthma. This can explain why an individual with a dry cough wouldn’t immediately suspect that the cause of the cough is the growth of mesothelioma cells on the pleural lining.
  • Shortness of breath. This can include shortness of breath on exertion and being short of breath at rest. Shortness of breath in mesothelioma is caused by the infiltration of cancer cells onto normal lung tissue. As a result, there isn’t adequate air exchange and the person becomes low in oxygen. Unfortunately, shortness of breath — especially on exertion — can be written off as de-conditioning so that the individual wouldn’t necessarily think that their symptoms are caused by cancer of the lung.
  • Exercise intolerance. This involves being unable to exert oneself due to shortness of breath or a constant cough. The lungs do not function effectively with mesothelioma, so that even the simplest of exertion leads to shortness of breath and an inability to exercise. This becomes progressively worse as the disease spreads into more areas of the lung tissue.
  • Respiratory complications. A person with mesothelioma is more likely to get respiratory infections or pneumonia. The lungs do not fight off infection as well when there are cancer cells present, and the individual might think that the problem is a common infection. To make matters worse, mesothelioma doesn’t always show up easily on a plain R-ray. So even if an X-ray is performed for a respiratory symptom, there may be no specific findings that point to mesothelioma lung cancer.
  • Difficulty breathing. An individual may have shortness of breath at rest or an elevated respiratory rate. The lungs try to compensate for poor air exchange by increasing the respiratory rate. This can lead to the sensation of not getting enough air.
  • Chest pain. If the mesothelioma is secondary to infiltration of the pleural lining of the chest cavity, there can be pleuritic chest pain, which is pain that is sharp and worse on inspiration. The location of the pain is usually at the site of the cancer, but it can be in other parts of the lungs as well. The pain can be mistaken for a muscle strain or pleurisy, which would not necessarily indicate the need to see a doctor for a full lung evaluation unless the symptoms lasted for an extended period of time.
  • Abdominal pain. An individual with peritoneal mesothelioma may experience abdominal pain. This can be a sharp pain in any part of the abdomen or a dull aching sensation from the cancer infiltrating the structures of the abdomen, stomach, intestines or solid organs inside the abdomen.

Common Mesothelioma Symptoms in Advanced Disease

As the disease progresses into advanced mesothelioma, there can be more systemic symptoms that suggest the presence of a more serious condition.

Advanced mesothelioma symptoms include the following:

  • Fever. The cancer cells can release factors that raise the body temperature, leading to fever and chills. The fever can be mistaken for an infection of the body and may be treated with over the counter medications without necessarily having to go to see a doctor.
  • Pleural effusions. This is from the cancer causing fluid to build up around the lungs. The fluid settles to the bottom of the lungs and causes shortness of breath due to irritation of the lining of the lungs. When the individual has pleural effusions found on an X-ray, the doctor may take a sampling of the fluid which would then show cancer cells residing in the pleural space.
  • Anemia. The cancer can divert the body’s metabolism toward making cancer cells rather than making healthy, red blood cells. This will lead to the development of anemia that may be written off to another health problem. People who are anemic often feel tired, faint or short of breath on exertion. A simple blood test can confirm the diagnosis of anemia and may lead the doctor toward other studies in order to identify the cause of the low red blood cell count.
  • Muscle Weakness. The cancer can overwhelm the metabolism so that the muscles become weaker.  The person may be unable to lift heavy objects or may have difficulty walking around due to leg muscle weakness.
  • Weight loss. When the cancer is extremely advanced, all the nutrition of the individual goes toward making cancer cells. As a result, less nutrition goes to the healthier parts of the body and an individual will begin to lose weight. Weight loss is a sign of advanced disease and needs to be taken seriously.

The biggest problem with mesothelioma is that once the symptoms become more obvious as a form of cancer, the disease is often in its most advanced stages. This means that anyone who knows they have been exposed to asbestos should be more conscientious about regularly visiting a doctor, should they develop any of the above symptoms.

Sources & Author Edited: May 16, 2016

About the Writer

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

LCDR Carl Jewett is a retired Naval Officer, having served just under 24 years in the submarine force. He currently serves as a VA Accredited Claims Agent and as the Executive Director of the Veterans Assistance Network. He specializes in assisting veterans filing VA claims for asbestos-related disabilities such as mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer.

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