Mesothelioma is a hard cancer to diagnose. This type of cancer has outward symptoms and microscopic signs similar to other types of cancer, as well as other less serious illnesses. Receiving an accurate diagnosis is important for any health problem. However, when the condition is as aggressive and life-threatening as mesothelioma, a misdiagnosis can be deadly.
Mesothelioma can be misdiagnosed in many ways. Since accurate and early diagnosis is important for effective treatment, people exposed to asbestos, or who experience persistent symptoms of mesothelioma, are encouraged to always seek a second opinion.
Difficulty of Diagnosing Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma is notoriously difficult to diagnose. The time between initial exposure to asbestos and a confirmed diagnosis of mesothelioma is call the latency period. The average latency period for mesothelioma is several decades. Asbestos fibers lodged in the mesothelium cause damage over time, although symptoms may not present for 20 years or more. Trying to diagnose mesothelioma so long after exposure is challenging.
Confusing symptoms also make mesothelioma hard to diagnose. When a doctor sees someone with symptoms like chest pain, cough, and difficulty breathing, there are more common conditions that the doctor may suspect. Even if the doctor suspects cancer, the signs of mesothelioma mimic those of lung cancer, which is far more common.
Unfortunately, more detailed diagnostic tests like CT, MRI, and PET scans cannot definitively diagnose mesothelioma. Images of mesothelioma tumors can look like lung cancer. Even a biopsy of the tumor cells is an imperfect tool because the cells of mesothelioma tumors look similar to other kinds of cancer cells. If the biopsy does not have enough mesothelioma cells, it can be very difficult for your medical team to give you a concrete diagnosis.
Because mesothelioma is rare, hard to diagnose, and has symptoms that resemble those of other conditions, it is often misdiagnosed. Specifically, symptoms like persistent cough, shortness of breath, and chest pains for pleural mesothelioma can lead to a misdiagnosis. Similarly, abdominal pain, stomach upset, diarrhea, and cramping for peritoneal mesothelioma can also be misdiagnosed.
Pleural mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed as just an upper respiratory infection. It may also be misdiagnosed as bronchitis, pneumonia, emphysema, asthma, chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder, or a type of lung cancer. Peritoneal mesothelioma may be misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis, a hernia, or ovarian cancer. Although it is very rare, pericardial mesothelioma may also be misdiagnosed as heart disease or heart failure.
Misdiagnosis of Stage
Not only can the type of cancer be misdiagnosed, but it is possible for a doctor to misdiagnose the patient’s stage of the mesothelioma. Staging is assigned based on the extent of the original tumor’s growth and how much it has spread to other parts of the body. Mesothelioma is diagnosed as stage 1, 2, 3, or 4 based on specific criteria. Doctors use imaging scans, biopsies, and blood tests to arrive at this staging diagnosis. However, these tests can be misleading and it is easy to miss part of the tumor that has spread.
Importance of Diagnosis for Treatment
An accurate diagnosis for any health condition is important for getting the right treatment. With a disease like mesothelioma that can be fatal when treatment is delayed or insufficient, a correct diagnosis becomes much more important. Although mesothelioma is tough to treat, the earlier an accurate diagnosis is made, the better the prognosis.
An early and accurate diagnosis opens patients up to more treatment options. This is true for the diagnosis of the condition itself as well as the stage of the cancer. A medical team needs accurate information to develop the best treatment plan for a patient. For example, if mesothelioma is misdiagnosed for several years, by the time a proper diagnosis is made, there may only be aggressive treatment options available. If a diagnosis had been made years prior, that patient may have benefited from less invasive treatments as the cancer may have been at an earlier stage.
Why Getting a Second Opinion is Important
Because an early and accurate diagnosis gives patients access to the best treatment options, getting a second opinion can be the difference between life and death. All patients should feel supported to get a second opinion, and encouraged in cases where the diagnosis may be unclear. Good physicians know the importance of having multiple expert opinions. Every health care consumer has a right to get as much information as possible, especially when it comes to his or her health. Since mesothelioma is a serious condition, a second opinion could make a big difference in treatment options and life expectancy. For mesothelioma, at least one diagnosis should come from a doctor who specializes in this kind of cancer.