Mesothelioma Symptoms

Mesothelioma symptoms can often be confused with the warning signs of other less serious diseases. Recognizing symptoms early on can lead to a faster diagnosis and improved life expectancy.

Key Points

  • 1

    Mesothelioma symptoms are nonspecific, making them difficult to diagnose.

  • 2

    There is a latency period of 10 – 50 years before symptoms may start to show.

  • 3

    The symptoms will vary dependent on the location and types of tumors present.

  • 4

    Recognizing symptoms is vital for earlier detection and improving prognosis.

Mesothelioma develops slowly over the course of decades, and symptoms may not show until the cancer has already progressed to a more advanced stage. Early symptoms of mesothelioma resemble other more common ailments, making it easy for patients to ignore and avoid seeking medical help until it’s more serious. The symptoms can also attribute to a misdiagnosis, sometimes even taking months to be diagnosed properly.

Because of how mesothelioma develops, early detection is so important. If mesothelioma can be diagnosed at an earlier stage, patients have more treatment options and a better chance at longer survival. Since the rare cancer is difficult to diagnose, between the latency period and these nonspecific symptoms, it’s important for better awareness around the early signs of mesothelioma.

Recognizing Mesothelioma Symptoms By Type

Mesothelioma symptoms a patient presents largely depends on the type of mesothelioma they have. Symptoms often present in the area of the body where the cancer has developed, whether the lungs, abdominal region or the heart. Though early signs and symptoms of disease are nonspecific and can be associated with other illnesses, even these early symptoms can  help indicate how the disease is progressing and spreading in the body. As the mesothelioma advances to a later stage for any type, the symptoms will become more severe and may vary more if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

Pleural mesothelioma, which develops in the lining of the lungs, is difficult to diagnose as its common symptoms can easily be confused with the flu, laryngitis or pneumonia. Early symptoms of mesothelioma often include shortness of breath, chest pain, or a lasting cough. Since at this earlier stage these signs may be less noticeable or irritating to the individual, the symptoms can be more easily ignored or believed to be one of these common illnesses. For many patients, symptoms don’t even begin to show until the cancer has already developed to a later stage.

Common Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Chest or lower back pain
  • Persistent coughing
  • Coughing up blood (hemoptysis)
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • Fluid around the lungs (pleural effusion)
  • Hoarseness or difficulty speaking
  • Blood clots (less common)

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms

The second most common type, peritoneal mesothelioma, develops in the abdominal cavity and presents related symptoms in that region of the body. As with the other types of mesothelioma, symptoms can vary greatly based on the individual and how the disease is progressing. Most commonly, early signs of peritoneal mesothelioma include abdominal pain and swelling, noticeable weight loss or fluid building up in the abdomen. Peritoneal mesothelioma is often confused for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or an inguinal hernia, as well as more serious conditions like ovarian cancer or other abdominal cancers.

Common Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Abdominal pain (acute to severe)
  • Swelling of the abdominal region due to fluid accumulation
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Loss of appetite and/or weight loss
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness

Pericardial Mesothelioma Symptoms

Pericardial mesothelioma is the most difficult of all the types to diagnose, and sadly often isn’t even discovered until posthumously. Early symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma may include chest pain, fluid build-up around the heart and heart murmurs or irregular heartbeats. Since pericardial mesothelioma is so rare and the symptoms nonspecific, it is often misdiagnosed as heart failure, coronary heart disease or inflammation of the lining of the heart (pericarditis) and muscle (myocarditis).

Common Pericardial Mesothelioma Symptoms

  • Abnormal heart sounds or murmurs
  • Chest pain
  • Fever
  • Pericardial effusion- Fluid buildup

Mesothelioma Symptoms by Stage

In addition to the location of the body where the mesothelioma develops, symptoms are also impacted by how the cancer is advancing or spreading in the body. In general, stage 1 and stage 2 show no or very limited localized spreading of the disease. At these early stages of the disease, symptoms may be very minimal if really noticeable at all. At stage 1, patients may notice a slight cough or some discomfort in their chest or abdomen. By stage 2 mesothelioma, symptoms may be a little more apparent but still vague, including shortness of breath and chest pain.

As the cancer starts to spread and developed into more advanced stages, symptoms will be more noticeable and severe. The majority of patients are diagnosed at stage 3, when symptoms are harder to ignore as the cancer has spread to nearby organs. Patients may experience more difficulties catching their breath and more intense pain in their chest or abdomen.

Stage 4 mesothelioma is the most advanced stage of the disease, indicating the cancer has spread more widely throughout the body. At this point, common symptoms seen at other stages will be more severe and likely be systemic as the cancer further advances. Some of the additional symptoms patients may experience because their mesothelioma has spread include nerve damage and other conditions. Most stage 4 mesothelioma patients only have the option of palliative treatment to help manage their symptoms and improve quality of life.

Signs Mesothelioma Has Spread

  • Coughing up blood
  • Paralysis of the vocal box – hoarseness
  • Horner’s syndrome
  • Nerve issues in the face or limbs

Other Factors Impacting Mesothelioma Symptoms

In addition to the type, cell type, and stage of mesothelioma, there are several other factors related to how the patient was exposed to asbestos that may influence the symptoms experienced.

  • Types of Asbestos: While every type of asbestos is dangerous, exposure to crocidolite, considered one of the most hazardous, may cause symptoms to present sooner.
  • Duration of Exposure: With certain occupations, individuals may be exposed to asbestos at long periods of time on a regular basis, causing symptoms to appear sooner.
  • Amount of Exposure: Individuals working with or exposed to larger quantities of asbestos may also experience symptoms faster than others.

What Should I Do if I Exhibit Mesothelioma Symptoms?

While many of us try to ignore any symptoms that may not seem serious, it’s always important to put your health first and seek medical attention for any symptoms you’re experiencing. Since early detection is the best way to improve mesothelioma prognosis and have more curative treatment options, it’s important to recognize potential symptoms of mesothelioma and speak with your doctor early on.

If you’re aware of any potential asbestos exposure you may have faced, even if years ago, it’s important to bring to your doctor’s attention. This may help them narrow down what could be causing your symptoms and help prevent misdiagnosis. A proper diagnosis can still take time as your doctor may run through a series of tests to rule out other diseases. Only a biopsy can confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis. Once a diagnosis is confirmed, your doctor will be able to go over a treatment plan and better explain what to expect.

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Sources [+]
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  • 2 Sterman, D.H., et al. “Clinical presentation, diagnosis, and staging of malignant pleural mesothelioma.” UpToDate.
  • 3 Ribak J., Lilis R., Suzuki Y., Penner L., Selikoff I. J. “Malignant mesothelioma in a cohort of asbestos insulation workers: clinical presentation, diagnosis, and causes of death.” British Journal of Industrial Medicine. 1988;45(3):182-187. PMID: 3348994. PMCID: PMC1007965.
Medically Reviewed By A/Prof. Tom John A/Prof. Tom John

Dr. Tom John is a medical oncologist, associate professor, and senior clinical research fellow at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia.