Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. The symptoms typically emerge in subtle ways that often get confused with respiratory diseases. Because this cancer is so rare, most doctors do not typically see a patient with this diagnosis. This poses a risk for misdiagnosis, especially due to its long latency period. The earlier the disease is detected the better the prognosis.
The symptoms of mesothelioma will vary depending on where the cancer is located.
Pleural Mesothelioma – affects the tissue surrounding the lungs. Symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in lower back or sides of the chest
- Unexplained weight loss
- Painful dry coughing
- Unusual lumps under the skin on the chest
- Pneumonia that does not get better
- Difficulty swallowing
- Hoarse voice
These early symptoms commonly mimic other illnesses such as pneumonia, bronchitis, or other respiratory infections. If a person who has been exposed to asbestos exhibits any of these symptoms, they should seek a specialist who is knowledgeable about mesothelioma.
Peritoneal mesothelioma – affects the tissue in the abdomen. Symptoms may include:
- Build-up of abdominal fluid (Ascites)
- Abdominal pain
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Night sweats
Symptoms of mesothelioma do not present themselves until decades after a person has been exposed to asbestos. Some common misdiagnoses include irritable bowel syndrome or the stomach flu.
Other forms of mesothelioma – The symptoms of the other types of mesothelioma are somewhat unclear because they are extremely rare.
- Pericardial mesothelioma – this affects the tissue surrounding the heart. Symptoms may appear as chest pain and difficulty breathing.
- Mesothelioma of the tunica vaginalis – the cancer affects the tissue that surrounds the testicles. The first sign may appear as a mass or swelling of the testicle. This cancer makes up less than 5% of mesothelioma cases.
When to see the Doctor
Early diagnosis is key to a longer survival rate. Anyone who has been exposed to asbestos should consult a doctor, even if the exposure occurred 50 years ago as the latency period for mesothelioma is 20-50 years.
Veterans represent a third of all mesothelioma cases and should search for a clinician that will be more aggressive in order to get a better diagnosis.
If any of the above symptoms are persistent or seem to be unusual, bothersome, or painful ask the doctor for an evaluation and make sure to report any asbestos exposure.
Diagnosis is done by chest X-ray, CT scan, PET scan, or an MRI imaging machine which will spot tumors within the chest or abdominal cavity. Tissue is then taken from the area and sent to a lab where it will be tested for mesothelioma. A positive test will result in the diagnosis of mesothelioma.