Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer caused by asbestos. It develops in the lining of the body’s organs, most commonly the lungs.

Unfortunately, because it’s so rare and causes symptoms usually associated with less serious conditions, it can be challenging to determine whether you have this cancer.

Find out more about mesothelioma and its symptoms.

Can You Have Mesothelioma and Not Know It?

Yes, it may be possible to have mesothelioma and not know it. This is because mesothelioma has a long latency period, meaning that it takes 10-50 years for the damage caused by asbestos exposure to develop into cancer.

As a result, people may not even realize that they were exposed to asbestos. When symptoms emerge, connecting them to exposures that happened decades ago can be difficult.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to review your work history to see if you might have come in contact with asbestos and alert your doctor if you may have been exposed.

Early Symptoms of Mesothelioma

Symptoms of mesothelioma can be harder to diagnose because they can be mistaken for more common conditions like the flu or pneumonia.

Some common signs and symptoms to watch out for include:

  • Bloating
  • Chest pain
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stomach pain
  • Weight loss

Asbestos fibers typically enter the body when breathed in or swallowed. They can then lodge in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, or other organs.

The damage caused by asbestos can also cause other co-occurring conditions, like breathing or digestive troubles. As a result, doctors may only diagnose one condition (such as lung cancer) and disregard the possibility of mesothelioma.

“A lot of patients have lung disease on top of mesothelioma.”

Dr. Taylor Ripley, Mesothelioma Specialist at Baylor Lung Institute

For example, one survivor’s mesothelioma presentation (initial symptoms/concerns) included repeated bouts of pneumonia before he was eventually diagnosed.

You can learn more about mesothelioma presentations and symptoms in our Free Mesothelioma Guide.

Tests Used to Diagnose Mesothelioma

To properly diagnose mesothelioma, doctors will need to perform a number of tests.

Can a chest X-ray detect mesothelioma?

Yes, a chest X-ray is often the first step in detecting signs of mesothelioma. These imaging scans help doctors pinpoint potential masses or abnormalities around the lungs.

Other diagnostic tests include:

  • CT scans: Similar to X-rays, CT scans provide more detailed images since they take scans at different angles to create a three-dimensional image.
  • MRIs: These scans are more intensive than X-rays and CT scans and are able to capture detailed images of the body’s soft tissues.
  • PET scans: Using a mildly radioactive sugar (radiotracer), PET scans help illuminate active cancer cells so they can be seen by doctors.

Once these imaging scans are complete, doctors will have a better idea if and where cancer may be present. At this stage, they will order a biopsy, which involves taking a tissue or fluid sample to examine cells in the lab.

A biopsy is the only way to know for sure if you have mesothelioma.

The Importance of Second Opinions

All of these tests can help doctors determine whether you have mesothelioma. However, there’s still room for error, especially if your symptoms are worsening after treatment for another diagnosis.

Mesothelioma misdiagnosis can go both ways, meaning people can be diagnosed with more common conditions when they actually have mesothelioma.

Alternatively, patients can also have a different type or stage of mesothelioma at diagnosis or a completely different condition.

Many mesothelioma specialists recommend getting a second opinion, even if you’ve already been diagnosed with mesothelioma.

“It’s good to have a fresh set of eyes. Sometimes it really does change things.”

Dr. Andrea Wolf, Mesothelioma Specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital

Additionally, because mesothelioma doctors are so experienced with this cancer, they may be able to detect it sooner than other doctors. Early detection is crucial in improving your prognosis (disease outlook) with mesothelioma.

Catching this cancer early means it has probably not spread far or at all, which means you may have access to more mesothelioma treatment options, like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

Find Out If You Have Mesothelioma

If you encountered asbestos on the job or in the military, you may be worried about whether you have mesothelioma. Or you might be experiencing vague symptoms and can’t remember if you might have been exposed to asbestos several decades ago.

Our team of Patient Advocates at Mesothelioma Hope is here to assist you in any way that we can.

We can help you:

  1. Track down where you may have been exposed to asbestos-containing products
  2. Connect with mesothelioma doctors for an accurate diagnosis or second opinion
  3. Explore options for financial assistance if you’re diagnosed with mesothelioma

You don’t have to navigate this journey alone. Call us at (866) 608-8933 now or fill out our contact form to talk with a Patient Advocate today.

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Laura WrightWritten by:

Lead Editor

Laura Wright is a journalist and content strategist with more than 15 years of professional experience. She attended college at the University of Florida, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2008. Her writing has been featured in The Gainesville Sun and other regional publications throughout Florida.

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  1. American Cancer Society. (2018, November 16). Signs and Symptoms of Mesothelioma. Retrieved March 19, 2024, from
  2. Moffitt Cancer Center. (n.d.). How Do You Know If You Have Mesothelioma. Retrieved March 19, 2024, from

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