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Symptoms and Signs of Mesothelioma

Symptoms of mesothelioma are usually non-specific and may not appear until 20 to 50 years after someone is exposed to asbestos. When symptoms do finally appear, they may include shortness of breath and pain in the chest due to an accumulation of fluid in the membrane that surrounds the lungs and lining of the wall of the chest cavity. In addition, symptoms may include weight loss and abdominal pain and swelling, due to a build-up of fluid in the abdomen. In some cases, symptoms may even include bowel obstruction, blood clotting abnormalities, fever, night sweats and anemia.

Malignant mesothelioma is almost always fatal and treatment options are limited. Survival is usually limited to 12 to 18 months from the time of diagnosis, sometimes substantially less. There are some people, however, usually relatively young and in good health before being stricken with this disease, who have achieved long-term survival.

Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include weight loss and cachexia, abdominal swelling and pain due to ascites (a buildup of fluid in the abdominal cavity). Other symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma may include bowel obstruction, blood clotting abnormalities, anemia, and fever. If the cancer has spread beyond the mesothelium to other parts of the body, symptoms may include pain, trouble swallowing, or swelling of the neck or face.

Mesothelioma that affects the pleura can cause these signs and symptoms:

  • Chest wall pain;
  • Pleural effusion, or fluid surrounding the lung;
  • Shortness of breath; and
  • Wheezing, hoarseness, or cough.

In severe cases, the person may have many tumor masses. The individual may develop a pneumothorax, or collapse of the lung. The disease may metastasize, or spread, to other parts of the body. Tumors that affect the abdominal cavity often do not cause symptoms until they are at a late stage. Symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain;
  • Ascites, or an abnormal buildup of fluid in the abdomen;
  • A mass in the abdomen;
  • Problems with bowel function; and
  • Weight loss.

In severe cases of the disease, the following signs and symptoms may be present:

  • Blood clots in the veins, which may cause thrombophlebitis;
  • Disseminated intravascular coagulation, a disorder causing severe bleeding in many body organs;
  • Jaundice, or yellowing of the eyes and skin;
  • Low blood sugar level;
  • Pleural effusion;
  • Pulmonary emboli, or blood clots in the arteries of the lungs; and
  • Severe ascites.

A mesothelioma does not usually spread to the bone, brain, or adrenal glands. Pleural tumors are usually found only on one side of the lungs.


Diagnosing mesothelioma is often difficult, because the symptoms are similar to those of a number of other conditions. Diagnosis begins with a review of the patient’s medical history. A history of exposure to asbestos may increase clinical suspicion for mesothelioma. A physical examination is performed, followed by chest X-ray and often lung function tests. The X-ray may reveal pleural thickening commonly seen after asbestos exposure and increases suspicion of mesothelioma. A CT (or CAT) scan or an MRI is usually performed.

If a large amount of fluid is present, abnormal cells may be detected by cytology if this fluid is aspirated with a syringe. For pleural fluid, this is done by a pleural tap or chest drain, in ascites with a paracentesis or ascitic drain and in a pericardial effusion with pericardiocentesis. While absence of malignant cells on cytology does not completely exclude mesothelioma, it makes it much more unlikely, especially if an alternative diagnosis can be made (e.g. tuberculosis, heart failure).

If cytology is positive or a plaque is regarded as suspicious, a biopsy is needed to confirm a diagnosis of mesothelioma. A doctor removes a sample of tissue for examination under a microscope by a pathologist. A biopsy may be done in different ways, depending on where the abnormal area is located. If the cancer is in the chest, the doctor may perform a thoracoscopy. In this procedure, the doctor makes a small cut through the chest wall and puts a thin, lighted tube called a thoracoscope into the chest between two ribs. Thoracoscopy allows the doctor to look inside the chest and obtain tissue samples.

If the cancer is in the abdomen, the doctor may perform a laparoscopy. To obtain tissue for examination, the doctor makes a small opening in the abdomen and inserts a special instrument into the abdominal cavity. If these procedures do not yield enough tissue, more extensive diagnostic surgery may be necessary.

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There is no universally agreed protocol for screening people who have been exposed to asbestos. However some research indicates that the serum osteopontin level might be useful in screening asbestos-exposed people for mesothelioma. The level of soluble mesothelin-related protein is elevated in the serum of about 75% of patients at diagnosis. It has been suggested that it may be useful for screening.

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Once the diagnosis is confirmed, the doctor may need to assess the stage to help plan treatment.

Mesothelioma is described as localized if the cancer is found only on the membrane surface where it originated. It is classified as advanced if it has spread beyond the original membrane surface to other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes, lungs, chest wall, or abdominal organs.

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Although reported incidence rates have increased in the past 20 years, mesothelioma is still a relatively rare cancer. The incidence is approximately one per 1,000,000. For comparison, populations with high levels of smoking can have a lung cancer incidence of over 1,000 per 1,000,000. Incidence of malignant mesothelioma currently ranges from about 7 to 40 per 1,000,000 in industrialized Western nations, depending on the amount of asbestos exposure of the populations during the past several decades.

It has been estimated that incidence may have peaked at 15 per 1,000,000 in the United States in 2004. Incidence is expected to continue increasing in other parts of the world. Mesothelioma occurs more often in men than in women and risk increases with age, but this disease can appear in either men or women at any age. Approximately one fifth to one third of all mesotheliomas are peritoneal.

Between 1940 and 1979, approximately 27.5 million people were occupationally exposed to asbestos in the United States. Between 1973 and 1984, there has been a three-fold increase in the diagnosis of pleural mesothelioma in caucasian males. From 1980 to the late 1990s, the rate of deaths from mesothelioma increased from 2,000 to 3,000 a year.

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