Heavy asbestos exposure is associated with a series of severe pulmonary diseases, including lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma. Although the former develops in a different region of the lungs than the latter, it is often incredibly challenging for doctors to distinguish between these two asbestos-related diseases. Mesothelioma can easily be mistaken for lung cancer due to its low prevalence. As a very rare form of cancer, mesothelioma affects roughly 3,000 people in the U.S. annually. On the other hand, there are over 250,000 new lung cancer cases every year. The majority of oncologists will never encounter a single mesothelioma case throughout their entire career and when it happens, the disease is very likely to be misdiagnosed.
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Nearly 10% of People Diagnosed with Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer Are In Fact Suffering from Pleural Mesothelioma
Both mesothelioma and lung cancer are triggered by asbestos fibers which have been inhaled. The human body is not naturally equipped to eliminate these toxic fibers and thereby after asbestos reaches the lungs, it will remain there for an unlimited period of time, gradually causing tissue inflammation and scarring. In 2 to 10 percent of cases, asbestos fibers accumulated on the outer lining of the lungs will lead to pleural mesothelioma. Nevertheless, despite both diseases being the result of asbestos exposure and affecting the same organs, mesothelioma is by no means similar to lung cancer:
- with lung cancer, malignant tumors develop inside of the lungs, whereas mesothelioma occurs in the outer lining of the organs
- the latency period of mesothelioma is considerably longer than that of lung cancer – while the first occurs within 20 to 50 years, the second tends to develop more rapidly, within 10 to 30 years
- the tumors involved in mesothelioma have a different structure and disposition than the malignant growths occurring in lung cancer – mesothelioma tumors appear as well-defined individual masses with clear boundaries, whereas lung cancer tumors are smaller and scattered on the surface of the affected lung
However, mesothelioma and lung cancer also have several common particularities, which can lead to misdiagnosis. Because both forms of cancer are accompanied by relatively the same symptoms (chest pain, shortness of breath, a persistent cough, fatigue etc.) and look very similar to a doctor who is not specialized in asbestos-related diseases, the chances of a patient whose lungs are affected by mesothelioma to be incorrectly assigned a lung cancer diagnosis are very high. It is estimated that nearly 10% of people with a history of asbestos exposure who were diagnosed with lung cancer have, in fact, pleural mesothelioma.
Seeking a Second Opinion from a Mesothelioma Expert is Vital for Your Prognosis
The rate of misdiagnosis is alarmingly high among asbestos victims. For this reason, if you have been exposed to asbestos on the job and were subsequently diagnosed with lung cancer, we strongly encourage you to seek a second opinion. Only a highly experienced specialist in asbestos-related diseases can provide you with a reliable and accurate diagnosis. Regardless of the competence of your first doctor, it is always a wise idea to be evaluated by another medical professional with relevant experience in diagnosing asbestos-related diseases.
Mesothelioma is often difficult to distinguish from lung cancer even for the most renowned experts, so consulting with multiple doctors is crucial. The consequences of a misdiagnosis are very serious. If you have been assigned a lung cancer diagnosis but suffer, in fact, from pleural mesothelioma:
- You will not benefit from appropriate and effective treatment for your actual disease. The treatment of mesothelioma is significantly different from that of lung cancer. Receiving inadequate treatment will be extremely detrimental to your prognosis, as mesothelioma does not respond to the drugs used in chemotherapy for lung cancer.
- Mesothelioma will continue to progress and spread rapidly to other organs. Your life expectancy will be dramatically shortened in the absence of efficient treatment, as mesothelioma also has a more aggressive development than lung cancer.
Why Is Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis Such a Common Occurrence?
As previously discusses, there are multiple factors which contribute to mesothelioma being misdiagnosed so frequently. Some of the most common reason why this rare form of cancer is mistaken for lung cancer or another similar disease – or even completely overlooked – by medical professionals include:
- The symptoms of mesothelioma mimic the signs of other respiratory diseases. Chest pain, shortness of breath, a persistent cough and fatigue are all symptoms associated with a large number of respiratory affections, including asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia and tuberculosis, as well as asbestosis and lung cancer.
- Inadequate diagnostic methods. The process of properly diagnosing mesothelioma is very lengthy and complex. It requires a series of special tests and diagnostic procedures, including chest X-rays, blood tests, CT scans and tissue biopsies. All these methods are necessary in order to thoroughly evaluate the condition of your lungs. While regular oncologists will most likely perform a fluid biopsy, doctors specialized in asbestos-related diseases will recommend you a tissue biopsy, as it is substantially more accurate when it comes to detecting mesothelioma. Moreover, your chest X-rays should be evaluated by a B-reader when an asbestos-related disease is suspected. They are experts in occupational lung disease and will be able to tell the difference between mesothelioma and another disease which resembles it.
- Mesothelioma has a very low prevalence. This malignant disease accounts for less than 0.3% of all forms of cancer. It is thus not surprising that most doctors will never have the chance to meet a mesothelioma patient over the course of their career and the majority of those who do are very likely to mistake mesothelioma for a different type of cancer.
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