Mesothelioma is a cancer that attacks the lining around your lungs or other organs. It is caused by asbestos. Mesothelioma symptoms usually appear many years after you were exposed to asbestos. Some people develop mesothelioma symptoms 40 years or more after they worked or lived around asbestos in a factory, mine, construction site, shipyard, boiler room, or other location.
Approximately 3,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year. Despite tighter regulation of asbestos starting in the 1980s, the number of mesothelioma diagnoses has risen slightly in recent years, rather than declining as researchers had expected. The risks of asbestos exposure have, unfortunately, not gone away.
Like many cancerous tumors, mesothelioma starts small. Mesothelioma symptoms often don’t appear until the tumor has grown large enough to press on surrounding organs or spread to other parts of your body. By the time you feel mesothelioma symptoms, the cancer may have progressed to a later stage. Researchers are working on improving mesothelioma blood tests and that might offer hope for early, asymptomatic mesothelioma detection in the future. That’s why awareness of mesothelioma symptoms is so important for those with a history of asbestos exposure.
Mesothelioma can be hard to diagnose because mesothelioma symptoms can also be caused by other illnesses. Doctors can mistake early stage mesothelioma symptoms for anything from indigestion to pneumonia to lung cancer. Because of this, it’s important to be aware of mesothelioma symptoms and your potential risk.
Could I Have Mesothelioma?
If you ever worked or lived around asbestos without proper precautions, you are at risk for mesothelioma and should be on the lookout for mesothelioma symptoms. Asbestos was most common in workplaces between the 1940s and the 1970s. There are still small amounts of asbestos in products on the market today and asbestos remains in products that were installed when it was more commonly used.
Professions most likely to have asbestos exposure include many construction trades, military veterans, especially those who served in the Navy, and workers in the factories that manufactured products containing asbestos.
You don’t have to work around asbestos to be at risk for mesothelioma. You might have been exposed when dust was flying everywhere during a home remodel, since many older building materials contain asbestos. Wives of men who worked around the toxic mineral have contracted mesothelioma from breathing the dust on their husband’s work clothes when they did laundry.
If your history includes asbestos exposure, it’s a good idea to be vigilant for mesothelioma symptoms. Even if your exposure was so long ago you can barely remember it, you are not out of the woods yet.
There are four types of mesothelioma, each affecting the lining or mesothelium around a different organ: pleural, peritoneal, pericardial, and testicular. In some cases, the cancer forms as one or more large tumor. For other patients, the cancer cells form many small nodules distributed over a wider area. Mesothelioma symptoms can vary, depending on which type of mesothelioma and how the cancer cells are distributed.
Here are the symptoms to watch for.
Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms
The pleura is the lining around the lungs. Pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of the disease. Because asbestos fibers can become airborne in dust, asbestos fibers most often enter the body through the lungs.
Pleural mesothelioma symptoms include:
- Difficulty breathing or being short of breath
- A cough that won’t go away
- Chest pain or a feeling of pressure in the chest
- Fluid in the lungs, also called a pleural effusion
- Fluid in the lining
- Coughing up blood
- Unexplained fatigue
- Fever or night sweats
- Achy body
- In severe cases, mesothelioma may cause a lung to collapse
Pleural mesothelioma can cause the lining around the lungs to get thicker or stiffer. This makes it harder for your lungs to fully expand. When you can’t take in a full breath, you can feel short of breath. In time, it might even hurt to take a breath. Lack of oxygen contributes to fatigue. These physical changes may keep your lungs from functioning properly, which can contribute to symptoms such as fluid buildup in the lungs.
If you have any of these symptoms and especially if they persist, make an appointment with your doctor. Be sure and mention your history of asbestos exposure, so you doctor considers mesothelioma as one possible reason for your symptoms. These pleural mesothelioma symptoms could also indicate more common ailments, like flu, pneumonia, asthma, chest infection, COPD, or even tuberculosis.
While mesothelioma is considered a usually incurable cancer, there are treatments that have the potential to add years to your life. The sooner you get a mesothelioma diagnosis, the sooner you can start treatment. It’s easy to ignore some of these signs, especially in the early stages, or write them off as simply the effects of aging. Mesothelioma symptoms will only get more severe the longer you wait.
Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms
Although asbestos cells usually get into the body through inhalation, the small and spiky mineral fibers can cause mesothelioma in internal organs beyond the lungs. Peritoneal mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium or lining that protects organs in the abdomen. Scientists aren’t sure how asbestos fibers reach the abdomen. It is thought that peritoneal mesothelioma could be caused by asbestos fibers being swallowed and traveling through the digestive system into the gut. Another theory is that asbestos could travel from the lungs to the abdomen through the lymphatic system.
Peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms may include:
- Persistent pain in the abdomen
- Feeling of pressure or being bloated
- Swelling in your abdomen
- Fluid buildup in the abdominal cavity (ascites)
- A tumor or mass in your abdomen
- Obstructed bowel or constipation
- Unexplained weight loss
- Blood clots
- Loss of appetite
- Umbilical hernia (where the navel pops out because of pressure in the abdomen)
- Very low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
- (In rare cases) epileptic seizures
Fluid buildup in the abdominal cavity is more common when the mesothelioma cancer is distributed around the peritoneum in small clumps of cells rather than in one larger tumor. The diffuse form of the disease is referred to as “wet” because it is usually accompanied by excess fluid buildup. Peritoneal mesothelioma with one large tumor and little or no fluid buildup is sometimes called the “dry” form of this mesothelioma cancer.
Peritoneal mesothelioma is especially challenging because the mesothelioma symptoms that come with it can sometimes remain hidden until the cancer is at an advanced stage. Like other forms of mesothelioma, these mesothelioma symptoms can easily be confused with other illnesses. At first, peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms may appear to indicate irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), stomach flu, or even a hernia.
Peritoneal mesothelioma is less common than pleural mesothelioma, but it is no less life-threatening. If you have one or more of these symptoms, see your doctor to get to the root cause.
Pericardial Mesothelioma Symptoms
Pericardial mesothelioma is one of the least common forms of this rare cancer; fewer than 6% of mesothelioma patients have this form of the disease. Pericardial mesothelioma attacks the lining around the heart.
Pericardial mesothelioma symptoms can include:
- Arrhythmic or irregular heartbeat
- Heart palpitations
- Heart murmur
- Chest pain
- Persistent cough
- Trouble breathing, not only when exerting yourself but also when sitting or lying down
- Excessive fatigue
- Unexplained fever or night sweats
You may have noticed that some pericardial mesothelioma symptoms are the same as pleural mesothelioma symptoms. There is some overlap. Unless you have mesothelioma symptoms that clearly relate to the lungs, such as fluid in the lungs, or the abdomen, such as a bowel obstruction, it may take some detective work from your medical care team to determine the root of your mesothelioma symptoms.
In addition, pericardial mesothelioma symptoms can look like other, more common heart conditions such as clogged arteries, angina, or conditions that involve inflammation of the heart or the lining around the heart (the pericardium). It is vital that you tell every doctor or specialist you meet with about your history of asbestos exposure. This will help the medical professionals on your care team ask the right questions and recognize mesothelioma symptoms more quickly.
Testicular Mesothelioma Symptoms
This form of the disease is so rare (less than 1% of mesothelioma cases), that doctors haven’t been able to define a clear set of mesothelioma symptoms yet. This form of the disease affects the thin membrane that protects the testicles, which is called the tunica vaginalis; some doctors refer to this disease as tunica vaginalis mesothelioma.
Testicular mesothelioma symptoms to watch out for:
- Fluid buildup in the testicles
- Swelling of the scrotum
- Pain or a lump in the testes
Of course, these can be symptoms of other conditions, including other types of cancer. The only way to conclusively separate testicular mesothelioma symptoms from other ailments is through testing after surgery to relieve the swelling or remove a tumor.
The survival rate for testicular mesothelioma is better than other forms of the disease, especially when caught early. However, these mesothelioma symptoms can also come from peritoneal mesothelioma that metastasizes to the testicles. Either way, it’s important to go to your doctor to get it checked out sooner rather than later. In the very rare event that you have testicular mesothelioma, early diagnosis could be a lifesaver.
Mesothelioma Symptoms After Metastasis
Sometimes mesothelioma symptoms are so diffuse that the cancer spreads to other areas of your body before you feel bad enough to go to the doctor. These metastatic cancers may cause health problems different from the mesothelioma symptoms listed above.
When mesothelioma metastasizes, the cancer cells migrate first to other spots in the abdominal cavity and upper body. Additional mesothelioma symptoms that can appear as the disease progresses include nerve issues in the arms, trouble swallowing, swelling in your neck or face, obstructed vein near the heart, low blood sugar, and chronic hoarseness because of damage to the voice box. Some people experience a condition called Horner’s syndrome, which causes eyelids to droop and dysfunction of the eye itself because of nerve damage to the face.
As the cancer progresses, some patients may experience more severe mesothelioma symptoms. Near the end stages of the disease, metastasized mesothelioma symptoms can include:
- Jaundice (skin and eyes take on a yellow tinge because of increased levels of bilirubin or bile in the system)
- Blood clots in veins or in the arteries that serve the lungs (pulmonary embolism)
- Increase of fluid buildup in the cavity around the lungs or in other parts of the abdomen
- Internal bleeding of the organs in the abdomen
Understanding Your Mesothelioma Symptoms
As noted above, many mesothelioma symptoms could also be symptoms of other illnesses or conditions. Not every cough is a sign of a serious problem. While it’s good for people who have worked or lived around asbestos to be vigilant for mesothelioma symptoms, you should also be wary of false positives. Chest pain, shortness of breath, and pain that runs down your arm could be signs of a serious heart condition – or mesothelioma. Fluid in the lungs could be the first symptom of mesothelioma or it might be pneumonia. Without extensive testing, it can be hard to tell the difference between mesothelioma symptoms and the signs of other cancers, such as lung cancer or intestinal cancer. Work with your doctor to rule out these explanations before you settle on a mesothelioma diagnosis.
Ask your doctor to do additional tests to check for mesothelioma if you experience several mesothelioma symptoms at once, if your symptoms continue to get worse despite treatment, or if you have one or more mesothelioma symptom that persists for a long time, such as a cough that just won’t go away.
Mesothelioma Symptoms During Treatment
Once you are diagnosed with mesothelioma and enter treatment, your doctors will prescribe treatments to reduce your mesothelioma symptoms. This may include draining excess fluid or surgery to remove a tumor. Chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and radiation can also help kill cancer cells and prevent their spread. Many mesothelioma patients find some relief from mesothelioma symptoms during treatment. Palliative measures including medications to relieve pain and reduce inflammation may also reduce your mesothelioma symptoms.
Treatment can extend your life, adding precious time to spend with the ones you love. You may also have new aches and pains as side effects of the treatment. These can include nausea and hair loss from chemotherapy and the pain of recovery from surgery. While immunotherapy has been a valuable tool in the fight against mesothelioma, it can cause a negative reaction in some patients.
Speak up. Tell your doctor how you are feeling so you can receive treatment that causes you a minimum of pain while it relieves your mesothelioma symptoms.
If you are the kind of person who prides yourself on your independence, you may be tempted to ignore mesothelioma symptoms and pretend that everything is okay. It’s okay to lean on someone else for help right now. At Mesothelioma Circle, our community of mesothelioma patients and caregivers is here to support you.
If you have a history of asbestos exposure and mesothelioma symptoms, you don’t have to face the challenges ahead alone. Mesothelioma Circle has resources to help you know what questions to ask your doctor. We also provide a list of mesothelioma specialists, so you can find an experienced doctor near you, who understands your mesothelioma symptoms. Subscribe to our blog for the latest news on clinical trials, advances in treatment, and support for you and your family.