One of the most troubling aspects of mesothelioma is that its symptoms generally do not appear until decades after a person’s first exposure to asbestos. Once the symptoms do appear, the disease has frequently progressed past the point of curative treatment.
A simple chest X-ray does not aid in the early detection of the disease. And although there is a new mesothelioma blood test that has great promise for helping to find mesothelioma at an early stage of the disease, such tests are primarily used now to track the course of the disease in patients who are already known to be suffering from mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is usually discovered when a patient visits the doctor in response to several common symptoms. The first symptoms of the disease can resemble pneumonia – shortness of breath, persistent cough, along with pain in the chest and abdominal.
Often, there will be an accumulation of fluid in the affected area, called an effusion. Many of the symptoms are so general that patients often wait until their health problems have persisted for a few months. Even then, because mesothelioma is still relatively uncommon, the symptoms may be attributed to another cause.
Pleural mesothelioma symptoms, peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms, pericardial mesothelioma symptoms and testicular mesothelioma symptoms share some similarities but also have some differences. A patient who experiences the symptoms of any type of mesothelioma – especially someone with a known history of asbestos exposure – should contact a physician at once.
Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms
About two-thirds of all mesothelioma patients have pleural mesothelioma, which is located in the lining of the lungs and chest. With pleural mesothelioma comes the rapid production of cancerous cells, which results in the thickening of the pleural membrane. This thickening can cause the accumulation of fluid between the membrane layers.
The thickened pleura and the build-up of fluids combine to place pressure on the lungs, which in turn prevents the lungs from working the way they should. Eventually, a person with mesothelioma will begin to experience outward symptoms of this internal activity. The symptoms include:
- Pain in the lower back or at the side of the chest
- Shortness of breath (dyspnea) that occurs even when at rest
- Painful breathing (pleurisy)
- Persistent dry or raspy cough (usually non-productive, where there is little or no phlegm)
- Trouble swallowing (dysphagia)
- Muscle weakness
- Unexplained weight loss of ten percent or more
- Swelling of the face and arms
- Coughing up blood (hemoptysis)
- Appearance of lumps under the skin on the chest
Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms
Approximately 25 to 30 percent of mesothelioma diagnoses are peritoneal mesothelioma, which is located in the abdominal area. As the growing cancer cells cause the peritoneal membrane to thicken, a build-up of fluid occurs between membrane layers. When the amount of fluid is sufficient to place pressure on the abdominal organs in that region, a patient will demonstrate symptoms of the cancer. The symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Swelling in the abdominal area
- Nausea or vomiting
- Night sweats or fever
- Unexplained weight loss
- Diarrhea or constipation (or, any change in bowel habits)
- Appearance of lumps under the skin on the abdomen
Pericardial Mesothelioma Symptoms
Fewer than five percent of mesothelioma cases are pericardial mesothelioma. The disease is so rare that the recognizable symptoms are not as easily identified as with pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma. Thus, pericardial mesothelioma can be difficult to diagnose. As with the other types of mesothelioma, however, the symptoms are caused by the thickening of tissue and build-up of fluids in the region, which is the area of the heart for pericardial mesothelioma. The few recognized symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma may include:
- Heart palpitations or irregular heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing, even when at rest (dyspnea)
- Fever or night sweats
Testicular Mesothelioma Symptoms
Testicular mesothelioma (also called mesothelioma of the tunica vaginalis) is the most rare form of the disease, with fewer than 100 cases of the disease recorded in the last 60 years. Because the disease is so rare, very little is known about its symptoms. The only clear symptom of testicular mesothelioma is the appearance of lumps under the skin of the testicle, which may or may not be painful.
A physical condition that often accompanies all the forms of mesothelioma, and thus is a symptom of sorts, is an effusion. An effusion in the body occurs when there is too much fluid, causing it to flow out of the vessel where it originated into a body cavity. A pleural effusion is the most common type in mesothelioma patients; it occurs in people with pleural mesothelioma when fluid builds up in the pleura, between the two membranes surrounding the lungs.
The pleura consists of two separate layers of membrane that protect the lungs and chest cavity. The outer membrane is called the parietal layer; it lines the entire chest cavity. The inner membrane is referred to as the visceral layer; it covers the lungs. When the fluid between the two layers accumulates, it causes a pleural effusion. The effusion itself produces unpleasant symptoms, including chest pain and difficulty breathing.
A surgical procedure known as thoracentesis can be performed to help relieve the painful symptoms of a pleural effusion. With a thoracentesis, a very thin needle is used to draw fluid from the pleura. Doctors also may treat a pleural effusion with a surgical procedure called pleurodesis. In this procedure, the fluid is drained from the pleura and the area is then treated with a chemical that produces inflammation. The swelling closes up the pleural space, which prevents the additional accumulation of fluid.
Peritoneal effusion is a condition that sometimes accompanies peritoneal mesothelioma. A peritoneal effusion occurs in the peritoneum, the membrane that protects the abdomen. Excess fluid in the abdomen can produce sensations of swelling, tightness and discomfort. Paracentesis is a procedure that doctors may perform to remove the build-up of fluid in the peritoneum and alleviate the symptoms it produces.
Mesothelioma patients with the pericardial form of the disease may also experience an effusion, but in the pericardium, the sac around the heart. The effusion can place pressure on the heart, resulting in chest pains and a sensation of pressure on the chest. Doctors sometimes remove the excess fluid from the pericardium in a procedure known as pericardiocentesis.