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Symptoms and controlling them

It can take many years after being exposed to asbestos for mesothelioma to occur. The length of time taken is referred to as the latency period and is usually between 15-45 years.

In the early stages when the mesothelioma is present as very small nodules it will not show up on any scans or xrays and is unlikely to cause any symptoms. As it progresses pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma can both cause general symptoms such as sweating, tiredness, loss of appetite and weight loss. As the disease advances pleural mesothelioma typically causes patients to feel breathless and/or experience chest pain.

Breathlessness may be due to a combination of factors. The pleura being thickened can act like a rind around the lung restricting its movement and preventing the lung from expanding.

Pain can be quite severe as the mesothelioma can extend into the tissues surrounding the pleura including nerves and bone. A variety of medication is available to control any pain experienced. Fluid may also accumulate in the space between the two layers of the pleura occupying space and again this restricts lung expansion. A cough or altered voice is also sometimes experienced. Peritoneal mesothelioma often causes swelling and pain in the abdomen.

This section describes symptoms that may be experienced by people with mesothelioma. It will include how these symptoms can be managed, based on medical evidence wherever possible. With care, much can be done to lessen the impact of most symptoms. In complex cases this requires the involvement of a variety of professionals - the multidisciplinary approach - such as doctors from palliative medicine and pain specialists, oncologists (cancer specialists), specialist nurses, physiotherapists, complementary therapists, psychologists and others. UK trade names for medicines are placed in brackets when used.

Irrespective of which anti-cancer treatment you have it is likely the mesothelioma will cause you to have some symptoms such as breathlessness, cough, pain or sweating. For this reason working with doctors and nurses who specialise in symptom management (Palliative Care Teams) is recommended for all patients.  

This section does not contain an exhaustive list of symptoms that may occur in mesothelioma. If you are concerned about any symptoms do go and discuss them with your GP, Macmillan nurse or hospital consultant and ask for specialist referral if the problems persist.

All terms in bold in this section can be found in the Glossary.