Mesothelioma is one of the most difficult cancers to diagnose. Since it develops slowly, patients may not feel any symptoms until 20, 30, or even 50 years after exposure to asbestos fibers. When they do start exhibiting symptoms, doctors may not even recognize mesothelioma because its initial signs resemble pneumonia, influenza or the common cold, making a diagnosis difficult. In other instances, a misdiagnosis may occur (see misdiagnosis below) since mesothelioma, although rare, is similar to other cancers. To make matters worse, many malignant mesothelioma victims actually contract pneumonia as one of the side effects of the disease and are usually treated for pneumonia only.
To diagnose mesothelioma, doctors may use one or several different methods, typically involving x-rays, scans, and/or removing small parts of the tissues in the infected area to be examined.
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Although it is theoretically possible for just about anyone exposed to asbestos to be diagnosed with asbestos-related cancer, 80% of mesothelioma cancer victims are men who suffered prolonged exposure to asbestos while working at job sites that used asbestos in machinery, equipment, and products. Typical occupations included steel mills, power plants, paper mills, the automotive industry, the military, and several different kinds of factories.
Women and Mesothelioma
Women have less of a statistical risk of being diagnosed with mesothelioma since most of the job sites that used asbestos were in fields that were employed by a majority of males. Yet, because asbestos can be found in schools, hospitals, and even homes built between 1930 and the early 1970s, women, too, are at some risk of being afflicted by mesothelioma. Additionally, women who worked in aircraft factories or shipyards during the Second World War are the most likely to be diagnosed with an asbestos-related cancer.
Furthermore, family members and loved ones who come into contact with someone who worked around asbestos run a small risk of contracting an asbestos-related illness. For example, a wife who washes clothes that are filled with asbestos fibers from her husband’s work may be susceptible to an asbestos-related disease.
There is a chance that mesothelioma may not be detected. Its long period of dormancy is one factor as the symptoms of mesothelioma can take decades to appear. Another determinant is the disease’s chameleon-like nature. It’s only when doctors make a connection between a patient’s exposure to asbestos that mesothelioma-specific tests are usually ordered. Anyone who has worked around asbestos is always encouraged to get regular check-ups and let their physicians know of past work history.
Younger People and Mesothelioma
Additionally, mesothelioma may not be detected in younger patients since the disease is more prevalent in older adults. According to a study performed at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital, results showed that out of 110 mesothelioma victims, 10 of those were under the age of 39. These patients had the typical symptoms of mesothelioma, such as coughing and difficulty with breathing, but because of their age, doctors didn’t diagnose the disease until several months later.
Another factor that makes a diagnosis especially difficult is that mesothelioma tumors can be confused with other types of cancer. Examinations using microscopes don’t easily reveal asbestos-related cancers.
As a result, as aforementioned, it’s imperative to discuss your work history and any form of asbestos exposure with your physician as soon as possible. If a physician knows that you’ve worked around asbestos, testing to diagnosis asbestos-related diseases will not be prolonged.
Testing Used to Diagnose Mesothelioma
If a physician suspects a patient is suffering from mesothelioma, a series of tests will be administered, including some or all of the following:
- Chest computed tomography (CT): Similar to a conventional chest X-ray, this is a non-invasive test which involves taking detailed pictures of a patient’s lungs. Normally used to look for emphysema, pneumonia, excess fluids in the lungs, or tuberculosis, it can also be used to detect tumors. This type of testing is being used more and more for victims who may have an asbestos-related disease.
- Conventional chest x-ray: This procedure is used to take pictures of the pleural regions in order to detect visual changes in the lungs and other vital organs. It is usually carried out in conjunction with other tests such as biopsies and cytology of pleural fluids.
- Open lung biopsy: An open lung biopsy involves removing a small amount of tissue from the lung to see if it exhibits any signs of infection, injury or cancer. The tissue is examined for signs of the disease and infection once removed. A small incision is made in the chest area in order for the physician to remove the tissue. A chest tube is typically left in the lungs for a few days after the biopsy is performed to ensure that the lungs don’t collapse.
- Pleural biopsy: As with an open lung biopsy, a pleural biopsy involves the surgical removal of a small amount of tissue from the pleural cavity. The tissue is then examined for signs of infection or disease. The difference, however, is that several different tissues are usually removed during a pleural biopsy as opposed to just a small amount of tissue during an open lung biopsy. Additionally, the ribs are usually separated in order to remove tissue.
- Cytology of pleural fluid: During a procedure called thoracentesis, a small amount of fluid from the chest cavity is extracted with a needle which is inserted into the patient’s back. A local anesthetic is used in conjunction with this procedure to prevent discomfort to the patient. The fluid is then examined in a laboratory for signs of cancers such as lung cancer and mesothelioma.
It’s important to understand that even if most mesothelioma victims are not diagnosed until decades later, the earlier the diagnosis the better the prognosis. Early detection makes it easier for medical professionals to provide mesothelioma treatments to remove the cancer from the body. Although mesothelioma is incurable, an early diagnosis will help prolong life spans and help victims deal more effectively with pain.
- Biomarker and Blood Tests: A biomarker is a test that’s used to help doctors find and diagnose a particular disease. For mesothelioma, there are several different types of biomarker and blood tests used to detect the disease, including:
Fibulin 3: Fibulin 3 is a relatively new biomarker that works by testing the Fibulin 3 in the patient’s blood stream. Fibulin 3 is a protein found in the body and with patients with mesothelioma, the protein can be significantly higher. For testing purposes, the protein is extracted via the body’s lung fluids.
Mesomark: Mesomark, also known as mesomark assay, is an in vitro test that’s used to test and monitor the soluble mesothelin related peptides (SMRP) in a patient’s bloodstream. Mesomark will then determine if the patient has a high amount of SMRP, which may indicate pleural mesothelioma. In 2007, Mesomark was approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) as a laboratory test used to detect malignant mesothelioma.
- PET Scan Imaging: PET scan imaging works by scanning the body to determine how the organs are working together and if there are any problems. A radiopharmaceutical material can be inserted into the bloodstream or inhaled before imaging, which will help to detect cancer spots on various organs.
- Thoracoscopy and Laparoscopy: Thoracoscopy and laparoscopy are methods of detecting cancer via a small camera inserted into the body. The difference, however is that a thoracoscopy involves scanning and detecting abnormalities through tissue samples, whereas a laparoscopy detects abnormalities via the body’s stomach organs.
- Mediastinoscopy: A mediastinoscopy involves inserting a small camera into the lung area in an attempt to examine the tissues on the front of the lungs.
Unfortunately, many physicians often misdiagnose mesothelioma. Keep in mind that mesothelioma is still considered a rare form of cancer in the medical world. Doctors and scientists are still researching the disease, but since it’s so new, misdiagnosis often occurs.
For example, since the symptoms of mesothelioma closely mimic the common cold and the flu, patients have often been diagnosed with mesothelioma prematurely or not diagnosed with mesothelioma at all. In other instances, mesothelioma may be confused with other similar cancers.
It’s always recommended to seek the opinion of another mesothelioma doctor when diagnosed since misdiagnosis for this type of cancer is high.
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