There are a number of signs and symptoms related to mesothelioma.
However, you should not automatically assume that you have mesothelioma if one or more of these signs and symptoms are present. You should instead immediately consult a doctor familiar with mesothelioma, for only after such a physician has fully examined and tested you can you be reasonably sure as to whether you do or do not have mesothelioma.
Pleural mesothelioma and pericardial mesothelioma have several symptoms in common. They include:
- Dry, persistent cough
- Pain in the chest
- Difficulty swallowing
- Shortness of breath
- Sudden, severe weight loss
- Muscle weakness
A distinguishing symptom of peritoneal mesothelioma is swelling and pain in the area of the abdomen.
Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to the industrial mineral asbestos. It typically takes 10 to 50 years or more after exposure before mesothelioma enters the picture. During those years of latency, you are unlikely to see any of the signs and symptoms of mesothelioma.
Once mesothelioma symptoms do manifest, you might not necessarily associate them with the disease. The reason is that mesothelioma symptoms often suggest many diseases other than mesothelioma.
The severity of mesothelioma symptoms is influenced by the type of asbestos to which you were exposed, with the crocidolite type said to produce symptoms presenting the highest level of severity.
How much asbestos you were exposed to and for how long a time also are factors. As you might expect, the more particles of asbestos you breathed or swallowed and the more frequently you inhaled or ingested them, the greater the potential for severe mesothelioma symptoms—and for them occurring at an earlier rather than later stage.
The timing and strength of mesothelioma symptoms are also affected by the cell type. Mesothelioma comes in three basic cell types: epithelioid, biphasic, and sarcomatoid. Early and severe symptoms tend to be associated with the sarcomatoid cell type. Later-manifesting and milder symptoms tend to be associated with the epithelioid cell type.
One other factor playing a role in the arrival and severity of mesothelioma symptoms is the degree to which the cancer has spread. If it has reached other nearby organs, the symptoms can become quite intense.
Dry, persistent cough
You normally cough to pull phlegm or mucus up and out of your airways. However, a dry cough brings up no phlegm or mucus (which is why it’s sometimes referred to as a “non-productive” cough).
Dry cough typically occurs when airways become irritated. Pleural mesothelioma can be one such cause of irritation. This happens because the cancer induces a thickening of the lung lining, which, in turn, exerts more and more pressure on the lungs themselves. The increasing pressure triggers the cough reflex.
Another source of cough-activating pressure within the chest cavity is pleural effusion. Mesothelioma can cause the irritated lung lining to release fluid—potentially a large volume of it. This fluid pushes in on the lungs and creates the urge to cough.
Pain is the result of mesothelioma tumors spreading and coming into contact with receptors crosshatched across the pleura, pericardium, or peritoneum. The receptors when activated by that contact carry electrical signals to the brain. The brain interprets those signals as pain.
As mesothelioma tumors spread, they steadily occupy more tissue area. The more tissue area covered, the greater the number of pain receptors affected. The more pain receptors activated, the more severe the pain you feel in your chest or abdomen.
At some point late in the cancer’s progression, it is likely to find its way to your muscle tissues and bones. The resulting pain is usually severe.
Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
Some people who have undiagnosed mesothelioma notice they are suddenly having increasing trouble swallowing. This can happen if mesothelioma has found its way into the esophagus.
The esophagus is a tube that sends food you’ve chewed to the stomach. The esophagus measures approximately nine inches in length and consists largely of muscle tissue. Mesothelioma can infiltrate this muscle tissue, thereby weakening it. This prevents the esophagus from easily pushing food from the back of the mouth to the stomach.
Mesothelioma can also produce dysphagia by constricting the esophageal passage. Here, the tumor infiltration causes a narrowing of the passage. This makes swallowing more difficult.
Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
For most mesothelioma patients, shortness of breath is the first symptom they notice.
As many as 90 percent of pleural mesothelioma patients and around 45 percent of peritoneal mesothelioma patients experience shortness of breath even while the disease is in its early stages.
The effects mesothelioma has on the linings of the lungs, abdomen, and nearby other vital organs explains why patients can find themselves struggling for air. One effect is pleural effusion—a buildup of fluid in the chest cavity. The fluid is produced when the pleura becomes irritated. Gradually, as the amount of fluid in the chest cavity increases, it presses against the lungs and prevents them from fully inflating during inhalation. Insufficient inflation means less air intake.
Another effect is reduced blood circulation. This happens mainly with pericardial mesothelioma. The cancer can cause the heart to pump oxygenated blood at below-normal levels. Shortness of breath results from this.
Still another effect is reduced function of the lungs. Mesothelioma acts like a solid casing as it spreads across the chest and abdominal cavity linings. Instead of naturally supple, the lining becomes rigid. In that state, it prevents the lungs from expanding easily or all the way.
One other effect is pain. In the section above, the effect of mesothelioma on pain receptors was discussed. If you are feeling pain in your chest every time you inhale and exhale, you will likely exhibit guarding behavior—in other words, to avoid or minimize the pain, you will probably take shorter breaths.
Sudden weight loss
Mesothelioma tumors feed on the nutrients you daily intake at meals. So, when you consume your usual amount of food, many of the calories your body counts on for energy and cellular activities are stolen by the cancer. With fewer calories available for the intended purpose, your body suddenly loses weight.
But you can experience sudden mesothelioma-induced weight loss for other reasons. One is fluid buildup in your abdominal cavity. Just as with effusions from the lining surrounding your lungs, effusions from the lining surrounding your intestines pushes in your stomach. The reduction in stomach volume can leave you feeling full after eating a mere fraction of your usual food intake.
Muscle weakness can be caused by mesothelioma if the cancer robs you of your appetite and you respond by eating less food. This means fewer calories to supply nutrients and energy to your muscles, which then can start to shrivel.
Another way mesothelioma can weaken your muscles is by setting off chronic inflammation within your body. The molecular agents released by inflammation can rob your muscles of strength.
When mesothelioma advances to a later stage, it can create muscle weakness by directly assaulting your ligaments and sinews.
Shortness of breath is yet another way that mesothelioma can weaken muscles. Here, you inhale less oxygen, which your muscles need for proper development, maintenance, and functioning. Deprived of that oxygen, your muscles become weakened.
You will likely experience fatigue if you are not eating enough food, if your muscles have been weakened, or if you are not getting enough oxygen.
You can also suffer fatigue if pain prevents you from getting enough rest.
Mesothelioma-related fatigue is different from ordinary fatigue because it never seems to end, no matter how much you rest.
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.
What to do if you have mesothelioma symptoms
See your doctor if you have the symptoms described above—especially if you know that at some point in the past you were exposed to asbestos.
However, never attempt to self-diagnose mesothelioma. It takes extensive medical training and much clinical experience to be able to diagnose mesothelioma—and not even the best of the best doctors diagnose based on symptoms alone.
Talk to a mesothelioma lawyer
If, after you see your doctor and are told you have mesothelioma, your next step should be to contact a mesothelioma lawyer in your state.
Mesothelioma treatment is very expensive. Medical insurance alone seldom is adequate to cover all the costs you can expect to incur.
Also, at some point it is possible that mesothelioma will make it difficult or impossible for you to continue working to earn a paycheck. In that situation, doctor and hospital bills not covered by insurance can add up quickly and financially overwhelm you.
A qualified mesothelioma lawyer can help you know your rights and your legal options. The fact is, as a mesothelioma patient, you may be entitled to compensation from the companies responsible for exposing you to asbestos. The compensation can be more than enough to pay your medical bills, replace lost wages, and even make up for the pain and suffering you and your loved ones have been forced to endure.
To talk to a mesothelioma lawyer, click here.
About the author…
Gregory Sandifer graduated from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and received his law degree from Western State University College of Law in Fullerton, California.