Even with advanced diagnostic techniques, misdiagnosis of mesothelioma is common and can significantly impact a patient’s recovery prospects. The longer the delay, the greater the likelihood that the cancer will spread throughout the body which will further reduce the possibility of a positive outcome.
Prevalence of Mesothelioma
Nationwide, it is estimated that there are more than 3,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed annually. As such, it is far less common than other forms of cancer. This relative rarity increases the likelihood that the disease will be misdiagnosed either because the physician does not have sufficient experience with the disease, or he or she may fail to correctly identify risk factors such as profession and lifestyle when determining potential exposures to asbestos.
Symptoms of Mesothelioma
Symptoms of mesothelioma include difficulty breathing, fluid on the lungs, abdominal pain, chest pain, fever/night sweats, muscle weakness, dry cough, and shortness of breath while doing minor tasks such as walking, light lifting, etc. As with any illness, symptoms alone are not enough to establish the presence of a particular illness. In fact, these symptoms coincide with a wide variety of illnesses which is why physicians must conduct thorough diagnostic testing to confirm the presence of a particular disease.
Commonly Misdiagnosed Conditions
Mesothelioma symptoms can mimic those of many other diseases. Pleural mesothelioma is sometimes confused with pneumonia, asthma, COPD, bronchitis, emphysema, and lung cancer. Moreover, mesothelioma does not just affect the lungs. It can occur within the peritoneal region. In these instances, mesothelioma may be misdiagnosed as ovarian cancer, a hernia, or irritable bowel syndrome. In cases of pericardial mesothelioma, the symptoms caused by mesothelioma can appear as heart failure or coronary artery disease.
Misdiagnosis is most common in the early stages of the disease. Because it may develop over a period of years, it may be misdiagnosed several times before an accurate diagnosis is obtained. This failure to diagnose can significantly delay treatment and may result in the patient progressing to a terminal stage.
In particular, misdiagnosis may delay surgical removal of the tumor(s) which is often the most effective method of prolonging an individual’s lifespan once the presence of mesothelioma is confirmed. Surgical removal is only an option in the early stages of the disease, after which, patients must rely on chemotherapy or radiation therapy to slow the progression of the disease. Further, delayed diagnosis also reduces the patient’s ability to take advantage of new, experimental, or potential treatments that may effectively slow the progression of the disease. The delay also reduces the amount of time and ability a patient has to pursue legal recourse and secure compensation from those responsible for exposing them to asbestos.
There are a number of different tests used to detect the presence of mesothelioma. These include x-rays, PET scans, MRI’s, and CT scans. However, these only identify the presence and location of tumor cells. Tissue biopsy is the only known method that has a reliable record of correct diagnosis. While imaging tests may point to the presence of mesothelioma, they are not accurate enough to either prove nor disprove the presence of the disease.
A biopsy of the tumor(s) can determine whether it is mesothelioma or another form of cancer. During a biopsy, a histopathologist will examine the cells to determine whether they are sarcomatoid, biphasic, or epithelial. In some cases, the physician may request a fluid biopsy from fluid gathered from the lungs or abdominal cavity. However, these cells are not as clear as those within solid tissue and can be extremely difficult to detect and examine.
Close examination of a tissue sample is essential as it is common for mesothelioma cells to be confused with adenocarcinomas and other cancers. If the histopathologist has never encountered mesothelioma, there is a greater likelihood that the specialist will misdiagnosis the condition as another form of cancer or abnormality.
Even with a correct diagnosis, there still exists the potential to misidentify the progression of the cancer. Identification of the correct stage has a significant impact on the treatment plan. If the stage is misdiagnosed, the treatment may be too aggressive causing unnecessary discomfort to the patient. In fact, aggressive treatment in the later stages can accelerate the spread of the cancer and significantly reduce the patient’s quality of life and overall life expectancy. Conversely, if the diagnosis is made early enough, the treatment may not be sufficiently aggressive which can allow the cancer to spread. For all of these reasons, it is necessary for patients to carefully review the diagnosis and obtain a second opinion to confirm the diagnosis is correct and that the proper stage of the cancer has been identified.