Mesothelioma is Hard to Detect from Symptoms Alone
People sometimes develop mesothelioma without realizing it until the cancer is far advanced.
The reason is that the symptoms of mesothelioma are not unique. In many cases, mesothelioma symptoms resemble nothing worse than those of a prolonged cold or flu.
In other cases, the symptoms suggest the problem is chronic fatigue syndrome because of the way it leaves you feeling constantly tired.
As well, mesothelioma symptoms can look like those of irritable bowel syndrome.
The list goes on. It takes a highly trained medical eye to even so much as suspect mesothelioma from the symptoms alone.
Frequently seen mesothelioma symptoms
Among the most common symptoms of mesothelioma is a dry cough that won’t go away.
Dry cough can be a sign of pleural mesothelioma—the cancer that starts on the membrane surrounding the lungs. This membrane is called the pleura.
As the cancer spreads along the surfaces of the pleura, the membrane reacts by producing an unusually large amount of fluid. This fluid builds up in the space between the lungs and the wall of the chest.
The more fluid there is, the less space available for the lungs to fully inflate. The result is the triggering of a reflex that produces a cough.
The normal purpose of a cough is to clear out mucus from the airway. But when mesothelioma causes a cough, there is no mucus to expel (that’s why it’s called a “dry” cough).
Another way the dry-cough reflex is activated is by irritation of the pleura. Mesothelioma subjects the pleura to continuous and increasing levels of irritation.
Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
Along with experiencing dry cough, pleural mesothelioma patients also typically find it harder and harder to take in enough air.
For the most part, being short of breath—in medical jargon, dyspnea—is a byproduct of the fluid buildup in the space between the lungs and the chest wall. The fluid depresses the lung and prevents it from filling up all the way with air during inhalation.
However, shortness of breath is due as well to reduced blood circulation. This happens mainly with cases of pericardial mesothelioma—the cancer that begins on the membrane surrounding the heart. Here, mesothelioma interferes with the heart’s normal ability to send oxygen-rich blood to the lungs.
Dyspnea comes too as a consequence of reduced lung function. Mesothelioma turns the lining of the lungs into a kind of straight-jacket that severely limits their ability to expand and contract. Because of that, the lungs can’t bring in or push out enough air.
One other source of shortness of breath is the pain generated by this cancer. Patients complain that it hurts to inhale fully. To reduce the pain, they breathe shallowly, which minimizes the amount of air that can enter.
Normally, the person feeling pain can attribute it to a source. For instance, if the person cuts a finger while working with a kitchen knife, the source of the pain felt at the site of the wound is self-evident.
But a person with undiagnosed mesothelioma can’t really attribute the pain to any specific cause or event. Initially, the pain feels like it’s originating just generally from somewhere in the chest or stomach. Later, as the cancer spreads, the pain comes from other places around the body—even in the bones.
Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
The esophagus is an organ of the throat. It’s basically a tube-like structure made up of muscle tissue and its job is to push chewed food from the mouth down to the stomach.
Mesothelioma makes the esophageal muscles go weak. This makes it difficult for food to travel through the tube.
Mesothelioma can also cause swelling of the inner surfaces of the esophagus. This narrows the passageway to the stomach and prevents food from going down easily.
Sudden weight loss
This happens because the runaway, out-of-control cell growth of a mesothelioma tumor robs the body of the calories needed to fuel normal metabolic functioning. The tumor usually can’t get enough nutrition from the amount of food normally eaten, so it grabs the extra calories required from fat stored throughout the body.
Weight drops as fat is burned by the hungry tumor. But mesothelioma can cause weight loss another way. Peritoneal mesothelioma causes a buildup of fluid not around the lungs but around the stomach. There, the fluid pushes against the stomach and compresses it. The result is a stomach that can hold less food.
That means the person with undiagnosed peritoneal mesothelioma can feel full after smaller meals. But smaller meals mean fewer calories going into the body, which means the cancer will make up the difference by consuming more stored fat.
It turns out that mesothelioma has an appetite for more than stored fat calories. It also likes to feed off of muscle tissue. As muscle tissue is lost to the cancer, the body grows weaker.
The cellular inflammation brought on by mesothelioma also weakens muscles. What happens is healthy cells under attack by the cancer release molecular agents that prove harmful to muscle tissue.
Shortness of breath doesn’t help matters where muscle strength is concerned. In order to function properly, muscles need a full measure of oxygenated blood. But they receive less than the full measure if breathing is degraded. Deprived, the muscles shrivel.
Mesothelioma’s assault on the body shortchanges it of needed oxygen, calories, and other essentials. Small wonder then that people with this cancer feel chronically tired.
Although the overwhelming majority of mesothelioma patients experience fatigue, it affects each patient differently. Some suffer severe levels of fatigue, while others do so only moderately. Still others encounter fatigue mildly.
Regardless, fatigue is fatigue, and it is one of the symptoms of mesothelioma. If these symptoms are present and you want to know whether they indicate mesothelioma, contact your physician immediately to discuss your symptoms.
Meanwhile, learn more about mesothelioma and how to fight it by downloading this free guide.