What are the symptoms of mesothelioma?

Posted: 28th Jun 18 12:00 PM

Mesothelioma is an incurable cancer caused in the vast majority of cases by exposure to asbestos dust and fibres.

There are 2 types of mesothelioma; pleural and peritoneal. Pleural mesothelioma affects the thin membrane that covers the lungs. Peritoneal mesothelioma occurs in the lining of the abdomen.

Pleural mesothelioma symptoms

In most cases of pleural mesothelioma, chest pain and breathlessness are the first noticeable symptoms. These are usually mild at the outset and are often attributed to other causes, which could delay referral to a respiratory and/ or mesothelioma specialist.

Chest pain is often described as feeling like a “heaviness” or “coldness” on one side of the chest. The pain is usually found low in the chest towards the back and sides. Sometimes, chest pain is felt in the shoulders and upper stomach, which could lead to unnecessary medical investigations, potentially delaying diagnosis.

Breathlessness and shortness of breath are usually caused by fluid that has accumulated in the pleural cavity. This accumulation of fluid is called a pleural effusion. In most cases the fluid will be drained, reducing breathlessness. However, pleural effusions can recur, requiring further draining or even a pleurodesis – the insertion of a dry, sterile talc into the pleural space.

Other common signs and symptoms of mesothelioma include:

  • Fatigue
  • Persistent coughs
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss over a short period of time

Over time, the initial “heaviness” changes to a more definite and continuous pain which becomes more severe as the cancer progresses.

Peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms

Mesothelioma in the abdomen is a lot rarer than mesothelioma in the pleura.

The tissue that lines the organs in the abdomen is called the peritoneum. This lining is there to help protect the contents of the abdomen and to keep them in place.

The latency period for peritoneal mesothelioma is usually 20 to 50 years. This is the period from the time of exposure to asbestos fibres to the time that the cancer starts to form. The asbestos fibres irritate the tissue and cells in the peritoneum and over time it starts to thicken. Over many years, mesothelioma tumours form which then places pressure on the internal organs.

Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include:

  • Abdominal pain and/ or swelling
  • Development of lumps under the skin on the abdomen
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Night sweats and/ or fever
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Nausea and/ or vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Anaemia

Difficulty diagnosing mesothelioma

Both pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma can be difficult to diagnose. Many of the symptoms of mesothelioma are similar to those of other respiratory conditions, and many of the tests specialists use to diagnose lung disease can prove negative when carried out on someone with mesothelioma. For this reason, if there is a suspicion you might have mesothelioma you may have to undergo several tests so that specialists can be sure of a diagnosis.

There may also be a need to have surgery to find out what is wrong. This is usually carried out as a surgical biopsy or open biopsy.

Biopsies are very important in helping to diagnose mesothelioma and other lung disease, so if your doctor suggests you have one, it is recommended you do so. Make sure to sit down and discuss this with your doctor, and ask about any risks or consequences that may arise.

If mesothelioma is diagnosed, it is important to seek the best care and advice available to you. Most health care professionals will be able to discuss what this diagnosis means for you and your family, and can offer you support.

Mesothelioma UK is a charity set up on the front lines of the NHS. They have mesothelioma nurse specialists around the country to help you, and they can offer medical and clinical advice and support.

Another place for support is the charity Maggie’s. Maggie’s have cancer care centres all around the UK and further afield. They provide free practical, emotional and social support to people with cancer and their family and friends. Built in the grounds of NHS hospitals, Maggie’s Centres are places with professional staff on hand to offer the support people need.

If you or a loved one is ever diagnosed with mesothelioma, or another asbestos-related disease, don’t hesitate to get in touch with the National Asbestos Helpline. We’re here to help you with advice about your condition and how to cope with it, and can also advise on any benefits and/ or compensation you might be entitled to. Call us on Freephone 0800 043 6635, or email enquiries@nationalasbestos.co.uk.

Further reading

Peace of mind with our specialist asbestos solicitors

What is mesothelioma?

Positive outcome for mesothelioma claims against factory occupiers from High Court case

Why is asbestos still causing thousands of deaths a year?

What is the difference between mesothelioma and asbestos?

Cancer patients could be saved by early diagnosis using artificial intelligence