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Diagnostic Tests for Mesothelioma
Diagnosis Is a Multi-Stage Process
As with most types of cancer, early diagnosis and treatment of mesothelioma can dramatically lengthen a patient’s life expectancy. Unfortunately, there are often many barriers that sit between a patient and a full diagnosis. If you or a loved one know you have been exposed to asbestos in the past, it’s important to make sure your doctor is aware of this fact so they can help you monitor yourself for signs of mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases.
Because of its rarity and nonspecific symptoms, diagnosing mesothelioma typically involves a few steps:
- A doctor and patient must work together to compile a detailed medical history to determine whether the patient has been exposed to any mesothelioma risk factors, focusing on asbestos exposure.
- A doctor who suspects mesothelioma will likely examine the patient for the presence of fluid in the lungs or the abdomen, which may point to pleural or peritoneal mesothelioma.
- The patient will undergo diagnostic testing to rule out other diseases. This may include blood tests used to detect cancerous cells, X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs. If at this point the disease or illness is not identified, the doctor will order a biopsy.
- After a patient has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, more tests are often needed to determine which stage the cancer has reached.
Malignant mesothelioma is a disease that originates in the mesothelial cells that line body cavities. There are four locations this disease can be found: the pleura, the membrane around the abdominal cavity (peritoneum), the sac surrounding the heart (pericardium), and the lining of the testes. It can be either localized or diffuse, which means spread over a wide area.
Using Tissue Samples for Diagnosis
Mesothelioma is most often diagnosed via biopsy—an analysis of potentially cancerous tissues removed from the body. Analyzing the fluid buildup (pleural effusion or ascites) does not give enough information for a doctor to make a diagnosis. While new techniques such as video-assisted thoracoscopy (VAT) and immunohistochemistry allow doctors to get more data from small amounts of the diseased tissues, these techniques may need to be performed by specialists.
Additionally, the tissue obtained from a closed pleural biopsy is not sufficient to determine whether the mesothelioma tumor contains epithelial, sarcomatoid, or biphasic cells. Knowing the cell type is essential for an accurate prognosis and treatment regimen. Therefore, a patient often has to undergo multiple tests before they know enough about their condition to start thinking about how to respond to it.
Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis or Delayed Diagnosis
Unfortunately, there are a number of reasons why mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed or diagnosed later than most other types of cancer. First, most of its early symptoms are similar to those of less severe illnesses, such as the common cold or flu. Additionally, mesothelioma is a rare disease, and many doctors have no experience working with patients who have it. Only around 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year.
Another reason doctors or even patients themselves may not realize why mesothelioma is because of its long latency period. A person’s exposure to asbestos typically occurs at least 20 years before the cancer begins to develop. Therefore, mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases may not be at the top of a patient or a doctor’s mind.
Tests May Not Be Able to Determine the Type of Cancer
Cancerous cells caused by mesothelioma closely resemble the cell structure of other forms of cancer. This means that even if you are tested in a method that can catch mesothelioma, your doctor may mistake it for another cancer. A number of other tumors that either begin within the thorax or spread from sites outside the thorax can mimic malignant mesothelioma. There are also a number of non-cancerous conditions that affect the pleura or liquid-filled sac between the lungs and chest wall that are similar in appearance to pleural malignancy.
For instance, mesothelioma symptoms often cause the doctor to order a thoracentesis and/or a closed pleural biopsy to obtain samples of pleural tissue and fluid. While these tests can give a definitive answer on whether the mesothelium has cancerous growths, they may not provide enough tissue to distinguish mesothelioma from lung adenocarcinoma, which is similar in appearance.
Is It Mesothelioma or Lung Adenocarcinoma?
To distinguish between mesothelioma and lung adenocarcinoma, your doctor may perform a bronchoscopy—a procedure that allows them to look inside your airways and lungs. Abnormal tissue on the lining of these airways is characteristic of adenocarcinoma, but not of mesothelioma.
Doctors may also use immunohistochemistry (IHC) tests to spot the changes made to cancerous cells. IHC uses antibodies that bind to specific proteins in the cells of tissues—and by targeting proteins including HMBE1 and Calretinin, doctors can see whether a malignant growth is mesothelioma or lung adenocarcinoma.
We Can Help You Determine Your Diagnosis
Over decades of helping mesothelioma patients—we’ve worked with thousands nationwide—we have close ties to mesothelioma clinics and specialists. As we mentioned previously, some general doctors simply don’t have enough experience with mesothelioma to provide the help you need. If you or a loved one is struggling to find a diagnosis, please feel free to reach out to our team for assistance.
If you have been diagnosed, you may be able to bring charges against companies or other entities responsible for exposing you to asbestos. While there is no way to compensate for the loss of one’s health, a mesothelioma attorney can help someone in your position recover compensation to help with medical bills, lost wages, and other expenses.
We have helped mesothelioma patients recover more than $100 million to care for themselves and their families during this time. When fighting such a scary cancer, you deserve an experienced attorney in your corner. We can provide the support and legal guidance you need.
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