Mesothelioma, a cancer that results from malignant cells in the lining of the chest and abdominal cavities,1 can be difficult to diagnose. The symptoms that are associated with it, such as weight loss, coughing, shortness of breath, nausea, pains and fever,2 are common among other illnesses. Mesothelioma tissue samples also closely resemble other types of cancer in diagnostic tests. Sarcomatoid mesothelioma,3 for example, are difficult to distinguish from sarcoma tumors or even healthy tissue when examined under a microscope. This can sometimes lead to a misdiagnosis in a disease where timing is critical — early detection and a proper course of treatment are key to survival rates.
The long latency period of mesothelioma and the lack of reliable detection methods make early diagnosis difficult. The typical testing methods for mesothelioma and the number of illnesses that share causes and symptoms can create diagnostic challenges.4
Following are several types of medical conditions that are similar to mesothelioma and where there is a risk of misdiagnosis.
- Lung cancer5 — A lung cancer patient might experience weight loss, chest pain, bone pain, cough, fatigue and recurring bouts of bronchitis. Comparatively, 60 percent of patients with pleural mesothelioma linked to asbestos in the lungs may have back pain, shortness of breath and chest pain.
- Pulmonary fibrosis6 — Like pleural mesothelioma, pulmonary fibrosis results from lung scarring, and common symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath and fatigue. Pulmonary fibrosis has also been associated with infections, occupational chemicals and environmental dust, including asbestos.
- Pulmonary infection7 — Pulmonary or upper respiratory infections such as pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (commonly known as COPD)11 and bronchitis are associated with cough, chest pain, muscle pain, body aches, weakness, fever and fatigue. Depending on the area of the body that is affected, mesothelioma can manifest with these same symptoms.
- Reactive airway disease8 — "Reactive airway disease" is a medical term used interchangeably with asthma. Wheezing, coughing and other symptoms of labored breathing are the result of lung muscle tightening, increased mucus production, and inflammation and swelling of the lung’s airways, which are common among sufferers of various lung disorders, including asthma and mesothelioma.
- Mesothelial hyperplasia9 — Epithelial mesothelioma can be confused with mesothelial hyperplasia.12 Epithelial cells and tissues make up the membranes of the skin and body and can grow excessively when stimulated by pollutants, hormones and infections. Some types of hyperplasia may look like mesothelioma on pathology slides if biopsy samples are too small.
- Neoplasms (tumors)10 — There have been cases where pathological evidence of pleural mesothelioma has been mislabeled as malignant neoplasm. Neoplasms are abnormal tissue growths and similar in appearance to the organs or tissues they are near, including mesothelioma tumors.
Misdiagnosis of mesothelioma can delay proper treatment and have tragic results. As the National Cancer Institute reports, early diagnosis is key to more effective cures.13 More accurate diagnosis can lead to better mesothelioma patient outcomes.
Medical professionals and researchers14 continue to diligently seek better methods of detecting and treating mesothelioma as a means of giving hope to the more than 3,000 people diagnosed with the condition each year.