From its earliest stages, mesothelioma is a difficult disease to diagnose. In the beginning, you may think you have a cold or the flu. As the symptoms progress, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic for the ongoing cough and general malaise. If not caught in the early stages, mesothelioma can be deadly.
Because there is no one recognized path to diagnosing mesothelioma, many patients are left lingering and waiting as doctors go through a series of general tests before realizing a mesothelioma diagnosis. For patients who have ongoing and prolonged exposure to asbestos, there is an immediate need for mesothelioma diagnostic testing.
Early Mesothelioma Symptoms
The earliest signs of this rare cancer are also the most common and general. They include fleeting pains, chest pressure, a lingering cough and an ongoing fever. Often, patients who see their doctors with these symptoms walk away misdiagnosed because it could be anything from pneumonia to bronchitis. For this reason, it’s important for patients to continually tell their doctors about any asbestos contact, especially if it happened decades ago. Typically by the second or third visit, doctors will order more complete testing that could indicate a mesothelioma diagnosis.
Initial Stages of a Mesothelioma Diagnosis
In most cases, doctors will begin with routine physical exams. Doctors need information that includes medical history, work history and genetic and family history to begin. During this exam, the doctor will listen to your lungs and heart for abnormalities, check your reflexes and look into your eyes, ears, nose and mouth. It’s unlikely that any patient will get a mesothelioma diagnosis from a simple physical exam. Instead, patients are sent for diagnostic imaging tests, blood work and biopsies.
Diagnostic imaging tests allow physicians to see the presence of cancer and the spread of the disease. There are several kinds of noninvasive tools:
- X-ray – An X-ray is commonly used as a diagnostic tool in cancer and respiratory ailments. This tool allows physicians to easily identify abnormalities on the lungs, heart and abdominal area, including areas of fluid and plaque deposits.
- CT Scan – Also known as a Computer Tomography scan, this tool allows doctors to see the location of tumors and the spread. It provides a more detailed look than X-rays.
- MRI – Also called Magnetic Resonance Imaging, an MRI uses a magnetic field to provide a closer view of internal abnormalities.
- PET Scan – Also known as Positron Emission Tomography, this nuclear medicine test uses a small amount of radioactive material to determine if the body is functioning correctly. It is helpful in determining if the cancer has spread.
Blood Work and Biopsies
While the imaging tests provide an excellent view of the internal body structures and any abnormalities, most doctors will not diagnose mesothelioma without the two final pieces of the puzzle: blood work and biopsies. These allow doctors to correctly stage the disease and devise a treatment plan:
- Blood Work – By looking at blood under a microscope, doctors are able to look for specific markers that indicate the presence of cancer. Recent advancements have made mesothelioma-specific blood tests a possibility in the near future. This test may make earlier diagnoses a possibility.
- >Biopsies– By removing small tissue or fluid samples for microscopic examination, doctors can determine the stage and type of cancer. In many cases, a needle biopsy is generally used because it is considered less invasive. For this, doctors use a thin needle to extract fluid and tissue. In some cases, a surgical biopsy may be necessary.