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Diagnosing Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a disease that is not well known, and therefore its symptoms are often missed, misinterpreted or misdiagnosed. Mesothelioma is an extremely serious illness, and its cause is clear cut, but unless a patient is aware of the risks involved in their own employment or exposure history, it is usually only identified after a few months of heading down the wrong path.

Mesothelioma is a rare disease that is only diagnosed in approximately 3,500 patients each year It is not top of mind for medical professionals, and therefore valuable time is often spent treating the wrong illness. Quite frequently physicians who are unaware of a patient’s asbestos exposure will see the symptoms, which are similar to those of flu, or pneumonia or bronchitis or other more common illnesses, and put their patients on standard treatments for these common illnesses. Patients often go through several courses of antibiotics before their physician is finally forced to think outside of the box, ask questions about their employment history and possible exposure to asbestos, and reach the correct diagnosis. It is not at all uncommon for it to take quite a few months between the time that symptoms first appear and a definitive diagnosis to be made.

Tests for Mesothelioma

Once mesothelioma or other asbestos-related disease is suspected, an entirely different approach is taken. Specialists are called in, diagnostic tests are ordered to provide enhanced views of various body organs, more invasive testing including biopsies and blood work are performed , all with an eye to providing a definitive diagnosis so that the appropriate treatment approach can be provided. Once mesothelioma is diagnosed, specialists are often brought into the treatment program, including pulmonary physicians, surgeons, oncologists, radiation therapists, and others.

The Process of Diagnosis

When the initial treatments of benign and common illnesses are set aside, specialists will often start over again. During the course of your examination, they will likely ask for your complete medical history and employment history, as well as a record of all of the places that you have lived over the course of your life. All of these questions are geared towards determining whether and where you have been exposed to asbestos, because the substance is a known carcinogen.

If there is evidence of asbestos exposure and you show mesothelioma symptoms, the specialist will probably order further diagnostic tests such as X-Rays, MRI scans, ultrasounds or other non-invasive procedures to determine whether or not a mass is present in any of your internal organs. If a tumor is found, the next step will likely be a biopsy of the tumor, which would definitively identify it as mesothelioma, asbestosis, or lung cancer. Once diagnosed, a course of action is determined by your physicians,. It is largely based upon how far the disease state has progressed and its location in your body.

Diagnostic Tests

There are a number of different tests that your doctors may order in order to determine whether or not your illness is mesothelioma. Many of these are diagnostic imaging tests that provide your doctors with a window through which they can see what is happening inside your body. The most commonly utilized diagnostic tests are the following:

X-Rays: X-Rays are probably the most familiar of the tests you may be required to undergo. The test produces images that provide information about areas where masses and increased density of tissue may be present.

CT Scans, or CAT Scans: These images provide a cross-sectional view of the body’s internal organs.

MRI Scans: Utilizing magnets and radioactive waves, MRIs provide highly detailed view of the body’s soft tissues.

PET Scans: Also known as Positron Emission Tomography, these tests identify when the organs in the body are functioning properly, and provide a sense of why they may not be.

All of these tests are able to provide physicians with a better sense of what is going on within the body, but the most valuable diagnostic tool is frequently the patient’s employment history, as it is this that points to asbestos exposure and serves as a roadmap. As for the diagnostic tests, the use of CT Scans in combination with PET scans generally provides the best and most detailed information for diagnosis.

Biopsies for Mesothelioma

Frequently, when one of the diagnostic tests described above finds something suspicious, the physician generally proceeds to the more definitive tests, biopsies in which samples of tissue are removed from the body via a range of different procedures. These samples of tissue are examined in the laboratory, which is where a definitive and final diagnosis is made. Tissue samples can be removed via fine needle aspiration, thorascopies (in which a camera is inserted into the body through the chest wall and removes tissue samples), and mediastinoscopies, a similar procedure done through the neck. Researchers are also working towards the development of a simple blood test for mesothelioma.

In all cases, once tissue has been provided to the laboratory for analysis, a definitive diagnosis is within reach, and once that is achieved a treatment plan can be devised.