Most mesothelioma symptoms take decades to appear after exposure to asbestos occurred. The symptoms of mesothelioma are also found in many other other more common diseases, making mesothelioma hard to diagnose. The symptoms of mesothelioma vary with each stage and location (chest, abdomen, heart) of the disease.
Mesothelioma is unique in that it has a long latency period, which is the amount of time between the initial exposure to asbestos and the appearance of noticeable symptoms. The latency period for most symptoms caused by mesothelioma ranges from 10 to 50 years.
Symptoms by Location
Pleural mesothelioma: The symptoms of pleural mesothelioma originate in the chest. Pleural effusions (fluid buildup in the chest around the lungs) make it harder to breathe and causes chronic chest pain.
Peritoneal mesothelioma: The symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma start in the abdomen. Ascites (fluid buildup in the abdomen) causes pain and fatigue that is often mistaken for gas or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Pericardial mesothelioma: This type of mesothelioma, originating in the heart, also causes chest pain. Fluid builds up in the protective sac lining the heart, causing the heart to work harder.
Some groups of people are at a higher risk of mesothelioma than others because of regular, everyday exposure to asbestos. Higher risk groups include factory workers, miners, construction workers and military veterans.
If you belong to one of these high-risk groups or have been exposed to asbestos in the past, learn more about the symptoms of mesothelioma and how they develop by getting our free Help Guide today.
Symptoms of Pleural Mesothelioma
Pleural mesothelioma forms in the pleura, the protective tissue surrounding the lungs. It accounts for approximately 75 percent of all mesothelioma cases.
Most pleural symptoms affect the airways, lungs, and breathing muscles, organs that collectively make up the respiratory system. Patients with pleural mesothelioma typically experience:
- Pleural effusion, excess fluid buildup around the lung
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pains
- Dry cough
- Weight loss
- Some patients also report diminished chest expansion and unusual breathing sounds.
Early-Stage Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms (Stages 1 and 2)
In the early stages of pleural mesothelioma, the cancer is localized to the protective lining of the lungs (the pleura). At this point, most patients don’t have any symptoms at all, though some may notice chest pains, fatigue, or shortness of breath.
Pleural mesothelioma may also cause pleural thickening, a condition that reduces a lung’s ability to expand and contract. Pleural thickening is characterized by shortness of breath and chest pain.
Advanced Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms (Stages 3 and 4)
In stages 3 and 4, the cancer has spread to other parts of the body and, possibly, to the lymph nodes. Advanced-stage patients will continue to experience symptoms from earlier stages in addition to several new symptoms, including:
- Abdominal pain (if the cancer has spread to that area)
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty swallowing
- Fever and/or night sweats
Symptoms experienced by patients with advanced mesothelioma point more clearly to pleural mesothelioma.
Symptoms of Peritoneal Mesothelioma
Peritoneal mesothelioma begins in the peritoneum, the protective lining of the abdominal cavity. It accounts for 20 to 25 percent of all mesothelioma diagnoses.
Peritoneal mesothelioma patients typically experience:
- Abdominal fluid buildup (ascites)
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Diarrhea or constipation
Many patients also report abdominal pain/tenderness and hernias. Some also experience bowel obstruction, which typically occurs when the cancer is more advanced. Fluid buildup is usually a symptom that the disease is more advanced.
Symptoms of Pericardial Mesothelioma
Pericardial mesothelioma is the rarest form of mesothelioma. It starts in the pericardium, the lining of the heart.
Symptoms common to pericardial mesothelioma patients include:
- Chest pain
- Irregular heartbeats
- Pericardial thickening
- Pericardial effusion (fluid buildup)
Pericardial mesothelioma is sometimes misdiagnosed as simple inflammation of the heart (myocarditis) or pericardium (pericarditis). A misdiagnosis usually happens because doctors diagnose less than 1 percent of pericardial mesothelioma cases per year and the symptoms look like other diseases.
Symptoms of Metastatic Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma that has spread from its point of origin in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart to other parts of the body is called metastatic mesothelioma. Certain symptoms indicate that the cancer has become metastatic and they usually affect locations outside of where the mesothelioma originated. These symptoms commonly include:
- Coughing or spitting up blood (hemoptysis)
- Injury to one or both of the nerves attached to the voice box (laryngeal nerve palsy)
- Nerve malfunction in arms
- Neurological syndromes
If you belong to a high-risk group, such as veterans or construction workers, or suspect you’ve been exposed to mesothelioma in the past, don’t wait for symptoms to show up before you see a specialist.
Because symptoms of mesothelioma have a long latency period, signs of mesothelioma usually appear after the disease has reached an advanced stage. Early detection is, therefore, critically important.