Mesothelioma Symptoms

Mesothelioma symptoms generally develop 20-50 years after exposure to asbestos. Common symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include shortness of breath, chest pain, and fluid buildup in the chest. Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include pain in the abdomen, bloating, and weight loss. If you have a history of asbestos exposure and are experiencing symptoms of mesothelioma, contact your doctor as soon as possible.

Common Symptoms of Mesothelioma

Malignant mesothelioma symptoms depend on a patient’s cancer stage and type of mesothelioma.

Most symptoms of pleural mesothelioma, which develops in the lining of the lungs, affect the lungs and chest. Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma, which develops in the lining of the abdomen, primarily impact the stomach.

That said, some mesothelioma symptoms are consistent for the majority of patients — regardless of their cancer type or stage.

Common symptoms of mesothelioma include:

  • Breathing problems
  • Chronic cough
  • Fatigue and muscle weakness
  • Fever
  • Fluid buildup in the chest or abdomen
  • Chest or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath

“Mercadante and colleagues observed that patients had a consistently high physical and psychological symptom burden with patients scoring a mean sum of 37.7/100 on the Edmonton Symptom Assessment System at admission to home palliative care. A high prevalence of pain, weakness, poor appetite, poor well-being and dyspnea were noted.”

Mesothelioma Symptoms Video Thumbnail

Video Summary: Amy Fair, a nurse with over 20 years of mesothelioma experience, explains the symptoms that victims exposed to asbestos watch for. View Transcript.

Some of the symptoms of mesothelioma at first, and the reason people delay treatment, is it can be something that mimics a cold. You know it can be a small fever, it can be chills, it can be shortness of breath, a minor cough. This is also followed sometimes by substantial weight loss.

Of concern is when those develop into severe fatigue, severe cough and someone then develops something called a pleural effusion, where they’re getting fluid in the lung, which usually warrants them to seek more extensive medical treatment.

An unresolved cough or an unresolved episode of shortness of breath, fever, chills, weight loss, should warrant someone to seek further testing and treatment by their physician.

The symptoms of mesothelioma, with the pleural mesothelioma, start many times with shortness of breath, fatigue, extreme weight loss, chest pain.

The symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma that attacks the abdomen, mainly is ascites, which is fluid in the abdomen, abdominal distension, vomiting, some constipation if there’s blockages.

Pericardial Mesothelioma, some of the symptoms can be, again, chest pain, shortness of breath, sometimes a condition called Atrial Fibrillation where the heart is not beating appropriately because of the constricting disease in the lining of the heart.

If you feel like you’re not getting better, this is something new for you, it’s certainly best to encourage your doctor to proceed with more testing.

Is Mesothelioma Painful?

In the earlier stages of mesothelioma, you may experience mild pain and discomfort and little to no symptoms. However, symptoms typically become more painful as the cancer spreads into bones, nerves, and other body parts.

Your doctor may recommend various forms of palliative care to help you manage your pain.

“Patients had a consistently high physical and psychological symptom burden (depression and anxiety).”

Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

Malignant pleural mesothelioma forms within the protective tissue lining that covers the lungs and chest, called the pleura. It is the most common type of mesothelioma and has 4 distinct stages.

Early-Stage Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

Patients with early-stage (stages 1 and 2) pleural mesothelioma usually have vague symptoms that mimic symptoms of other illnesses.

Early-stage pleural mesothelioma symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Fluid buildup (pleural effusions)
  • Persistent dry cough
  • Pain in the chest wall
  • Shortness of breath

These early symptoms are hard to detect, meaning patients are rarely diagnosed during these stages.

Late-Stage Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

Patients with late-stage (stages 3 and 4) pleural mesothelioma may notice more painful and uncomfortable symptoms. In these stages, the cancer spreads through the lymph nodes or bloodstream, causing existing symptoms to worsen and new symptoms to appear.

Late-stage pleural mesothelioma symptoms include:

  • Anemia
  • Blood clotting disorders
  • Coughing up blood (hemoptysis)
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Fever and excessive sweating
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lumps under the skin of the chest
  • Noticeable weight loss

Misdiagnosing Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms

Since pleural mesothelioma is so rare, doctors sometimes misdiagnose it as other, more familiar conditions that affect lung function.

Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma may be mistaken for:

  • Bronchitis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which can already be present in those exposed to asbestos
  • Lung cancer
  • Pneumonia
  • A benign (noncancerous) tumor

Real-Life Patient Story
In 2016, a 65-year-old woman was diagnosed with having a benign tumor. Months later, when she was experiencing severe shortness of breath and chest pain, she sought a second opinion and was correctly diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma.

Pleural Mesothelioma Symptom Management

In addition to the standard treatments for pleural mesothelioma (surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation), you can help manage your symptoms through various palliative care options.

Palliative care for pleural mesothelioma may include:

  • PleurX™ Catheter: This small catheter allows you to drain uncomfortable fluid buildup at home, easing pressure and pain in the chest.
  • Thoracentesis: In this procedure, doctors use a needle to remove extra fluid from the chest cavity, helping you breathe better.
  • Pleurodesis: This procedure involves sealing the two layers of the pleura (lung lining) to prevent recurring fluid buildup.
  • Clinical trials: Clinical trials test new mesothelioma treatments with the hopes of managing symptoms and finding a cure for this cancer. Your doctor can help you determine if you qualify for a clinical trial.

Non-medical or natural therapies may be used alone or in conjunction with curative treatment to help ease pleural mesothelioma symptoms. Some alternative therapies for pleural mesothelioma include breathing techniques, acupuncture, and proper nutrition.

While non-medical treatments may ease symptoms, they are not a substitute for medical treatment from mesothelioma doctors and specialists.

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Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms

Peritoneal mesothelioma develops in the protective lining of the abdomen (peritoneum).

Peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating (distention) of the stomach
  • Changes in bowel habits (bowel obstruction)
  • Diarrhea and constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Fever and night sweats
  • Fluid buildup in the abdomen (ascites)
  • Malnutrition and loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weight loss

As peritoneal mesothelioma tumors develop, it becomes difficult for the abdominal lining to move, causing a painful, bloated feeling in the stomach.

Misdiagnosing Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms

Since peritoneal mesothelioma affects the stomach area, patients with this condition may be misdiagnosed as having a digestive problem or another type of abdominal-related condition.

Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma may be mistaken for:

  • Crohn’s disease
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Ovarian cancer

Real-Life Patient Story
This was the case in 2004 when a 14-year-old was confirmed to have peritoneal mesothelioma after being misdiagnosed with Crohn’s disease.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptom Management

Some ways to help manage your peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms are:

  • Cytoreduction/Debulking: This procedure involves removing visible tumors from the abdomen, with the goal of stopping or slowing the spread of cancer.
  • Paracentesis: In this procedure, doctors remove extra fluid from the abdominal cavity to relieve pressure and improve digestive and respiratory functions.

Alternative therapies may also be used as a form of palliative care to help peritoneal mesothelioma patients manage their pain, nausea, and stress.

Symptoms of Less Common Mesothelioma Types

Pericardial Mesothelioma Symptoms

Pericardial mesothelioma forms in the protective lining of the heart (pericardium). It causes tightness and constriction of the heart muscles due to tissue inflammation.

Pericardial mesothelioma symptoms may include:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fluid buildup in the heart
  • Heart palpitations
  • Irregular heartbeats and heart murmurs (arrhythmias)
  • Tightness in the chest

Patients may be able to manage pericardial mesothelioma symptoms with a pericardiocentesis, a surgical procedure that involves removing fluid buildup from the pericardium.

Testicular Mesothelioma Symptoms

Testicular mesothelioma occurs when cancerous tumors form on the lining of the testes (tunica vaginalis).

Symptoms of testicular mesothelioma may include:

  • Discomfort or pain around the scrotum
  • Fluid buildup and swelling of the scrotum (hydrocele)
  • Masses on the testicles or in the testicular lining

How Do You Know If You Have Mesothelioma?

Only a biopsy can confirm whether you have mesothelioma. However, knowing how to spot the signs and symptoms of mesothelioma may help you receive an earlier diagnosis, the best treatment options, and a better prognosis.

Some doctors recommend that patients with a known history of asbestos exposure get regular imaging tests — such as X-rays or computed tomography scans (CT scans) — to detect any signs of cancer early on.

First Signs of Mesothelioma

Early mesothelioma symptoms tend to be mild. They become more obvious and severe when the cancerous tumors grow and push against major organs inside the body.

The first signs of mesothelioma may include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Chest pain
  • Dry coughing
  • Fluid buildup (pleural effusions)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble breathing

The Mayo Clinic recommends: If you are experiencing mesothelioma symptoms, consult your doctor. During your visit, you can share your symptoms and asbestos exposure history.

How Quickly Do Mesothelioma Symptoms Progress?

It only takes a few months for untreated mesothelioma symptoms to worsen and become severe. On average, patients who do not receive treatment live around 6 months after diagnosis.

Treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation can help slow down the progression of your symptoms and improve your life expectancy.

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When to See a Mesothelioma Specialist

If you experience possible mesothelioma symptoms — even if you are unsure whether you were exposed to asbestos — see your doctor as soon as possible and tell them what you know about your exposure history.

Your doctor should order imaging tests to examine your lungs or wherever your symptoms seem to originate from. To get a proper mesothelioma diagnosis, seek out a doctor who has experience with diagnosing and treating this type of cancer.

Contact a member of our team today for help finding a mesothelioma cancer center or specialist near you.

Mesothelioma Support Team
Reviewed by:Dr. Mark Levin

Certified Oncologist and Hematologist

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Mark Levin, MD has nearly 30 years of experience in academic and community hematology and oncology. In addition to serving as Chief or Director at four different teaching institutions throughout his life, he is also still a practicing clinician, has taught and designed formal education programs, and has authored numerous publications in various fields related to hematology and oncology.

Dr. Mark Levin is an independently paid medical reviewer.

Mesothelioma Hope was founded by a team of advocates to educate people about this aggressive form of cancer. Mesothelioma affects thousands of people each year. We help give hope to those impacted by mesothelioma.

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  15. Oberto, C., Schwarz, K. B., Zambidis, E., Campbell, A. B., Paidas, C., Lindyberg, K., & Oliva-Hemker, M. (2004, March). Malignant peritoneal mesothelioma in a pediatric patient mimicking inflammatory bowel disease. Retrieved February 14, 2020, from
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