Nearly 3,000 people in the U.S. are annually diagnosed with mesothelioma, a very rare and aggressive form of cancer which is exclusively caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos. Because the malignant disease entails a long latency period of 20-50 years, the majority of those affected today were in contact with asbestos at some point during the past century. These carcinogenic minerals have been widely employed by numerous industries until the 1980s due to their convenient properties such as resistance to fire and inability to conduct electricity, as well as due to their accessibility and low price.
According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 11 million workers have been exposed to tremendous levels of asbestos between 1940 and 1978, while 75 occupational groups are currently at a high risk of developing an asbestos-related disease. However, mesothelioma is rarely accompanied by clear symptoms in the early phases, which makes it incredibly difficult to promptly diagnose. To make matters worse, the rate of misdiagnosis is also alarming, since mesothelioma can easily be mistaken for a more common respiratory condition such as pneumonia, asthma or bronchitis. Therefore, a series of special tests and procedures is required in order to receive an accurate diagnosis.
Why Is Mesothelioma So Difficult to Detect?
Diagnosing mesothelioma is a very complex and challenging endeavor. In addition to the vague symptoms, there are other factors which can hinder the process. Some of the reasons for mesothelioma being misdiagnosed or completely missed by medical professionals include:
- Mesothelioma is very rare. Only 3,000 new cases are registered in the U.S. every year, as opposed to over 200,000 Americans being annually diagnosed with lung cancer. Due to the low prevalence of mesothelioma, there are insufficient cases thoroughly documented by medical literature and additional research is necessary to gain a better understanding of the disease’s nature.
- The diagnostic methods used by most oncologists are not suitable for evaluating mesothelioma. Because mesothelioma is also a very complex form of cancer which occurs differently than other malignant diseases affecting the lungs, the patient needs to undergo tests and medical procedures specifically designed for evaluating it. Most oncologists will not encounter a single mesothelioma case in their entire career, so the expertise of a highly experienced specialist in asbestos-related diseases is crucial for a proper assessment.
- The cellular structure of mesothelioma tumors resemble malignant cells involved in other forms of cancer. The cells which make up mesothelioma tumors are very similar to other types of malignant cells. As a consequence, pleural mesothelioma can be mistaken for lung cancer, while peritoneal mesothelioma can be misdiagnosed as ovarian cancer.
Only a Highly Experienced Oncologist Specialized in Mesothelioma Cases Can Provide You with a Reliable Diagnosis
Considering the low prevalence and complexity of mesothelioma, the broad knowledge and vast practice experience of a specialist are vital if you want to avoid misdiagnosis. Although there are not many oncologists focusing on the diagnosis and treatment of this malignant disease, we highly encourage you to seek help from an expert, as a regular oncologist will most likely fail to properly identify it and will be unable to guide you towards the most efficient treatments. There are plenty of online resources you can access in order to find the best mesothelioma specialist in your area.
Diagnostic methods for mesothelioma are still under research and considerable breakthrough has already been achieved in this respect throughout the last decades. At the moment, three of the most accurate and effective diagnostic tests and procedures for mesothelioma are:
- Tissue biopsies. During a tissue biopsy, a surgeon will collect a small portion of your lung, which will subsequently be examined by a pathologist. This type of biopsy is substantially more reliable than a fluid biopsy, as malignant cells are easier to observe by analyzing solid tissue. Most biopsies are performed using a minimally invasive approach, so the risks associated with this procedure are extremely low. A tissue biopsy can provide your oncologist with essential information concerning mesothelioma tumors such as the exact type of cells involved.
- The Mesomark assay. One of the most effective and rapid ways of evaluating mesothelioma is the Mesomark assay, a test which reveals the level of SMRP – a biomarker secreted by mesothelial tumors – in the blood. A high concentration of SMRP often indicates the presence of mesothelioma. The test can also be successfully used during treatment to monitor the progress of the disease.
- CT scans. A computerized tomography is another useful diagnostic tool which can provide valuable information about the location and size of malignant tumors. The oncologist will thus be able to assess the severity of your condition, as well as determine whether cancer has metastasized to other organs or not. However, a CT scan can only reveal information regarding the appearance of tumors and for this reason, it should always be used in conjunction with a tissue biopsy.