Mesothelioma is difficult to diagnose. It is a tricky type of cancer with both outward symptoms and microscopic signs that are similar to other types of cancer and even other, less serious illnesses. Getting an accurate diagnosis for any type of health problem is important, but when the condition is as aggressive and potentially deadly as mesothelioma, a misdiagnosis can cost someone their life.
There are several common ways in which mesothelioma is misdiagnosed. Because accurate diagnosis is important for treating this type of cancer, patients who have been exposed to asbestos or who have the symptoms of mesothelioma are encouraged to get second opinions and to see experts in the study of mesothelioma.
The Difficulty of Diagnosing Mesothelioma
This type of cancer is notoriously difficult to diagnose. The first difficulty it presents is a long latency period. This is the time between the first exposure to asbestos and a confirmed diagnosis of mesothelioma. The average latency period for mesothelioma is several decades. Asbestos fibers lodged in the mesothelium cause damage over time, but the symptoms may not begin for 20 or 30 years. Trying to diagnose it so long after exposure is more challenging.
Another reason this condition is tough to diagnose is the symptoms. When a patient goes to the doctor with symptoms like chest pain, a cough, and difficulty breathing, there are many more common conditions the doctor is most likely to suspect before mesothelioma, which is rare. Even if the doctor suspects cancer, the signs of mesothelioma mimic those of lung cancer, which is more common.
More detailed diagnostic tests like CT, MRI, and PET scans cannot definitively diagnose mesothelioma. The images of tumors can look like lung cancer. Even a biopsy of the tumor cells is an imperfect tool. The cells of mesothelioma tumors look similar to other types of cancer cells.
Because mesothelioma is rare, because it is difficult to diagnose, and because the early symptoms mimic those of other conditions, it is often misdiagnosed. The symptoms a patient first complains about, like a persistent cough, shortness of breath, and chest pains for pleural mesothelioma, and abdominal pain, stomach upset, diarrhea, and cramping for peritoneal mesothelioma often lead to a misdiagnosis.
Pleural mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed as an upper respiratory infection like bronchitis, pneumonia, emphysema, asthma, chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder, and various types of lung cancer. Peritoneal mesothelioma may be misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, a hernia, or even ovarian cancer. Although it is very rare, pericardial mesothelioma may also be misdiagnosed as heart disease or heart failure.
Misdiagnosis of Stage
Not only may the actual type of cancer be misdiagnosed, it is possible for a doctor to misdiagnose the stage of the mesothelioma. Staging looks at the extent of the original tumor’s growth and its spread to other parts of the body to diagnose a cancer as stage 1, 2, 3, or 4. Imaging scans, biopsies, and blood tests are used to make this staging diagnosis, but many of these tests can be misleading and it is not difficult to miss part of the tumor that has spread.
The Importance of Diagnosis for Treatment
An accurate diagnosis for any type of health condition is crucial for getting the right treatment for a patient. When the condition is something that can prove fatal when treatment is delayed or inappropriate, like mesothelioma, a correct diagnosis becomes even more important. This cancer is difficult to treat, but the earlier an accurate diagnosis is made, the better the outlook is for the patient.
An early and accurate diagnosis gives patients more treatment options and the best treatment options. This is true for the diagnosis of the condition itself as well as the stage. A medical team needs as much accurate information as possible to develop the best treatment plan and to give a patient a choice about treatment plans. For example if mesothelioma is misdiagnosed for several years, by the time the right diagnosis is made that patient may have no other choice for treatment than an aggressive and risky surgery. Earlier that patient may have benefited from less invasive treatments.
Why Getting a Second Opinion is So Important
Because mesothelioma is difficult to diagnose, because it is an aggressive type of cancer, and because an early and accurate diagnosis leads to the best treatment options, getting a second opinion on a diagnosis is so important for the outcome of the patient. According to survey results, most American patients never seek a second diagnosis for anything. When they do, according to the survey, they often end up with alternative treatment plans.
It may seem like an insult to a doctor to seek a second opinion, but it is the right of a health care consumer to get as much information as possible. Especially with such a serious potential diagnosis, this second opinion is important. For mesothelioma, at least one diagnosis should come from a specialist in this type of cancer.
What Mesothelioma Specialists Look for
Specialists who have studied this cancer have much more information and a greater ability to distinguish between the symptoms and other signs of mesothelioma and those of lung cancer and other conditions. A specialist will use medical history, asbestos exposure history, physical exams, imaging scans, biopsies, histology, and even genetic tests like the miRview to make a diagnosis.
All together these diagnostic techniques give the best picture of mesothelioma or a condition similar to it. A specialist is likely to see some distinctive characteristic of mesothelioma that a general doctor or even an oncologist is likely to miss.
Finding a Mesothelioma Specialist
If you suspect at all that you have mesothelioma and you are dissatisfied with your current diagnosis, seeing a mesothelioma specialist should be your next step. Because this cancer is rare, there are not many specialists practicing, but there are enough that you should be able to find one to help you. Start with a recommendation from your doctor or oncologist, but also look into cancer care centers, or if you are a veteran, VA medical centers. Getting a second opinion is so important; don’t neglect to take this crucial step.
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