Common symptoms of mesothelioma range from shortness of breath to weight loss and chest pain. Since there are few symptoms of mesothelioma that are unique to the disease, it is often mistaken for other diseases or misdiagnosed. If you were exposed to asbestos and have seen a change in health, it doesn’t hurt to get checked by a medical professional.
Each type of mesothelioma have common symptoms and vary based on the location of the disease. Those with pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma have more chest symptoms. And those with peritoneal have more abdominal discomfort.
Your symptoms can also hint at your current prognosis. Patients experiencing severe weight loss, for example, may be in stage 3 or 4 of the disease. Patients who are in good health with little discomfort are more likely to be in the early stages.
Doctors perform imaging scans as the first step to understanding your symptoms and where they have come from.
Common Mesothelioma Symptoms
The early signs of mesothelioma are often minimal. Many patients believe they have a respiratory infection or muscle strain.
Many patients, regardless of mesothelioma type, have similar symptoms, including:
- Wheezing or a dry cough. Caused by irritation of the lung and pleural lining tissue. This is also a symptom of acute respiratory infection and chronic bronchitis, and it is why some people with a dry cough don’t suspect that mesothelioma is causing their symptoms.
- Shortness of breath. This can include shortness of breath from exertion and while at rest. The infiltration of cancer into the lungs causes shortness of breath, which inhibits air flow, preventing oxygen from reaching lungs effectively. 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. Many patients write this symptom off. They often think it’s due to being out-of-shape or aging.
- Exercise intolerance. This involves being unable to exert oneself due to shortness of breath or a constant cough. Mesothelioma stunts effective lung function. Even the smallest amount of exertion can be unbearable. This becomes worse as the disease spreads into more areas of the chest and abdominal cavity.
- Respiratory complications. A person with mesothelioma is more likely to get respiratory infections or pneumonia. The lungs do not fight off infection as well in cancer patients. Doctors use X-ray imagery to examine symptoms of chest infection. In early stages, X-ray alone may not be enough to detect mesothelioma.
- Chest pain. The location of chest pain is usually at the site of the main tumors. It can be in other parts of the lungs, chest and heart as well. The pain can be mistaken for a muscle strain or pleurisy. These aren’t typical symptoms people see a doctor for unless the symptoms lasted for an extended period of time.
- Abdominal pain. Peritoneal mesothelioma patients often experience abdominal pain. This can be a sharp pain in any part of the abdomen. Or it can be a dull aching sensation. This pain comes from cancer spreading in the abdomen. It can affect the stomach, intestines or solid organs in the abdomen.
Nonspecific Symptoms of Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma is often diagnosed late because the symptoms are nonspecific. This means that there are few symptoms that are unique to mesothelioma. Chest pain, for instance, is common to many other heart and lung conditions. Difficulty breathing is more likely to be bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). And these conditions are far more common than mesothelioma. It’s logical for doctors to suspect a more common condition before suspecting cancer.
Here is a short list of some other illnesses and diseases that have the same symptoms as mesothelioma:
- Common cold
- Cystic fibrosis
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
When someone has several symptoms of mesothelioma, it’s rare for the cause to be mesothelioma. If you have mesothelioma symptoms and little to no asbestos exposure history, it’s unlikely you have mesothelioma. That being said, if you have symptoms associated with mesothelioma, see a doctor as soon as possible.
Common Symptoms of Advanced Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma patients experience more symptoms in the later stages. There are also nonspecific symptoms of advanced mesothelioma.
Advanced mesothelioma symptoms include the following:
- Fever. Cancer cells can cause immune responses that raise body temperature, leading to fever and chills. Fever can be mistaken for an infection. Some patients unwittingly try treating this symptom with over-the-counter medications.
- Fatigue. This is a common symptom for all types of advanced cancer. As cancer spreads through the body, affected organs aren’t able to function the same. Fewer nutrients make it to the healthy cells.
- Pleural effusions. Effusions are fluid buildup around the cancer site. The fluid causes expansion and tightness in the chest. This causes shortness of breath. Pleural effusions can show up on an X-ray. If effusions do show up, your doctor will take a fluid sample to test for cancer.
- Ascites. This is a type of fluid buildup in the abdomen. Like pleural effusions, it causes tightness and discomfort. It can be painful or feel like bloating. CT scans can detect the sites of fluid buildup.
- Anemia. Mesothelioma can divert the body’s metabolism toward making cancer cells. The body redirects nutrients to cancer cells rather than making healthy, red blood cells. This can lead to anemia. On its own, anemia can be mistaken as another health problem. People who are anemic often feel tired, faint or short of breath. A simple blood test can confirm the diagnosis of anemia. This blood test may lead your doctor to conduct other studies. Further tests can identify the real cause of the low red blood cell count.
- Muscle Weakness. Mesothelioma can overwhelm your metabolism so that the muscles become weaker. You may be unable to lift heavy objects or may have difficulty walking around due to leg muscle weakness.
- Weight loss. When cancer is in its latest stages, all consumed nutrition gets sucked up by cancer cells. As a result, less nutrition goes to the healthier parts of the body. This results in weight loss.
Once the symptoms become more obvious as a form of cancer, the disease is often in its most advanced stages.
Having one or two of these symptoms on their own is rarely a sign of a condition as serious as mesothelioma. Patients with advanced mesothelioma often exhibit multiple symptoms. Even mesothelioma patients can have one of these symptoms without it being tied to their diagnosis.
Latency Period of Symptoms
Some people have assumed that mesothelioma is a slow-growing tumor because it takes so long to develop. This is not true. It does take decades for asbestos fibers to cause cellular mutations, but once asbestos mutates healthy cells into cancer, emerging mesothelioma cells spread quickly.
Most veterans were first exposed to asbestos in the military and face continued exposure in their careers after the military. It takes anywhere from 10-50 years after this time to start noticing symptoms.
Many veterans get their mesothelioma diagnosis long after they start noticing symptoms. This is because the initial symptoms of mesothelioma may seem like symptoms of a minor condition or aging.
Some mesothelioma patients have high levels of osteopontin and soluble mesothelin-related peptides (SMRPs). These are amino acids and proteins that can be found in the patient’s blood. Researchers are learning more about how to detect mesothelioma early using osteopontin and SMRPs. Doctors can also track these substances to follow the course of their patient’s disease.
Treating Your Symptoms
Treatment goes beyond trying to rid a patient of mesothelioma. Symptoms of this disease can be uncomfortable and painful. So there are treatments that have the specific goal of improving quality of life. They are called palliative treatments.
Patients can receive palliative care at any stage of their disease. Doctors often recommend starting this treatment as soon as possible. This helps patients manage their symptoms and feel as good as they can.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology says that “patients who receive both often have less severe symptoms, better quality of life, and report they are more satisfied with treatment.”
Palliative treatments for mesothelioma include:
- Radiation to shrink tumors
- Surgery to improve breathing
- Fluid drainage
- Nutritional supplements
- Medication for specific symptoms (like nausea)
- Relaxation techniques
Finding Treatment for Mesothelioma Symptoms
Many veterans have had symptoms at some point that are common to mesothelioma. The symptoms alone rarely mean a veteran has mesothelioma. But if you’re older with a history of asbestos exposure in the military, it is wise to let your doctor know about your exposure history. If you already have a diagnosis, knowing what symptoms lie ahead can prepare you.
Key points to remember about mesothelioma symptoms:
- Mesothelioma symptoms are nonspecific.
- Symptoms take 20-50 years to develop.
- There are ways to manage pain and symptoms.
Palliative treatment is a benefit to patients at any stage of their disease. Early stage patients may have radiation to shrink tumors. Later stage patients may have fluid drained to help them breathe easier. Managing your symptoms improves your quality of life. It can even help you cope with aggressive treatments that extend life. Find a doctor who can help you manage your symptoms now.