7 Reasons Mesothelioma is Difficult to Diagnose

7 Reasons Why Mesothelioma Is Difficult to Diagnose

In the 20th century, many people killed by mesothelioma died without ever knowing the name of their disease.

There were no workplace protections, the relevant medical knowledge was suppressed by manufacturers, and no organized community advocated on victims’ behalfs.

Thankfully, a lot has changed since the turn of the century. Mesothelioma victims and their families are now able to get the support they need through mesothelioma lawsuits.

Yet even today, many patients wait months to receive an accurate mesothelioma diagnosis after first reporting symptoms.

During this delay, the cancer can spread. This limits treatment options, but also the precious time a patient has to effectively fight the disease.

What Makes Diagnosing Mesothelioma So Hard?

Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer that develops after someone has been exposed to asbestos. To understand why mesothelioma stays hidden for so long, it’s helpful to understand how people get sick in the first place.

Until the 1970s, when the health risks became public knowledge, asbestos was used extensively by manufacturers, construction companies, and the U.S. military. The toxic mineral was easily incorporated in insulation, ceiling tiles, paint, and thousands of other commercial and consumer products.

The end result is that asbestos still lurks in homes, schools, and workplaces across the country. As this “legacy asbestos” degrades over time, it generates asbestos dust that can be deadly if inhaled.

When dormant asbestos is disturbed — during renovations or demolition — tiny fibers can become airborne, greatly increasing the chance of human exposure.

There is no cure for mesothelioma, and, once exposed to asbestos, the risks of asbestos-related disease are lifelong. Despite the dangers and large advocacy and research communities dedicated to fighting the disease, it remains incredibly challenging for patients to recognize and physicians to diagnose.

7 Reasons That Mesothelioma Is Difficult to Diagnose

7 Reasons That Mesothelioma Is Difficult to Diagnose
1. People Don’t Know They Are Still At Risk
2. Mesothelioma Has an Extremely Long Latency Period
3. People Don’t Know They Were Exposed
4. Mesothelioma Symptoms Are Hard to Recognize
5. Many Doctors Have Not Encountered Mesothelioma
6. There Is No Easy Way to Screen for Mesothelioma
7. Approximately 14% of Mesothelioma Diagnoses Are Incorrect

1. People Don’t Know They Are Still At Risk

Many Americans think that asbestos is banned. Others think asbestos is no longer a threat.

Neither of these things is true.

Asbestos is banned by more than 60 countries, but it remains legal in the United States. A single industry continues to import the toxic material onto American soil, even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that the asbestos cancer risks posed to workers are unreasonable.

And even though asbestos is more regulated than it used to be, people are still getting sick. “The number of new mesotheliomas per year and of deaths per year continue to increase both in high‐resource countries and worldwide,” according to a review article in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, which is published by the American Cancer Society (ACS).

“The hope that mesothelioma would disappear after the implementation of strict regulations on asbestos has not materialized,” said the interdisciplinary group of mesothelioma researchers, led by Dr. Michele Carbone.

Despite the serious, ongoing public health risk, many people mistakenly believe that asbestos is a thing of the past. When symptoms come, many fail to take appropriate steps that would lead to an early and accurate diagnosis.

2. Mesothelioma Has an Extremely Long Latency Period

When asbestos enters the body, it can take 20-50 years for symptoms of mesothelioma to become bad enough to seek medical treatment.

The long latency period, during which the cancer grows undetected, makes it much more difficult for patients and their physicians to know what’s wrong.

Potential asbestos exposure from decades ago is not the first thing people think to tell their doctor when they make an appointment about a dry cough or shortness of breath.

Yet their exposure history holds the key to diagnosing their present-day illness.

3. People Don’t Know They Were Exposed

Decades of research link past employment in high-risk asbestos occupations with mesothelioma.

People who worked directly with the toxic substance in enclosed spaces — such as boiler tenders, pipefitters, and insulators — put themselves in the most danger of inhaling asbestos fibers.

But it wasn’t just the frontline workers who were hurt. Asbestos could spread throughout a workplace, or be carried home on a worker’s clothes, poisoning their family. Such “second-hand asbestos exposure” underscores just how lethal the microscopic fibers can be.

Because of the decades between exposure and symptoms, both doctors and patients are liable to connect the body’s warning signs with something happening in the present.

4. Mesothelioma Symptoms Are Hard to Recognize

The first signs and symptoms of mesothelioma are very similar to those associated with non-life-threatening diseases.

Mesothelioma symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite (early satiety)
  • Weight loss
  • Night sweats
  • Fluid buildup in the lung lining (occurs with pleural mesothelioma)
  • Fluid build up in the abdominal lining (occurs with peritoneal mesothelioma)

It’s easy to see how many people might ignore these symptoms, or attribute them to another common illness, such as a cold or flu. Since many who are diagnosed with mesothelioma are in their 70s, they mistake signs of disease for signs of aging.

Even when these symptoms force a person to seek medical attention, there are dozens of other possible causes that are much more common than mesothelioma. Not every physician can separate signals from the noise.

5. Many Doctors Have Not Encountered Mesothelioma

Because mesothelioma is so rare, most doctors have limited experience in diagnosing it. This can lead to a misdiagnosis, which complicates the situation by delaying appropriate testing, treatment, and care.

During testing, it is important to have a mesothelioma specialist review the test results. An incorrect interpretation of the test results can delay diagnosis, even when the proper tests are administered.

6. There Is No Easy Way to Screen for Mesothelioma

Screenings are one of the most important preventative measures a person can take in order to catch cancer early and give themselves the best odds of success. Unfortunately, the only way to be sure that someone has mesothelioma involves invasive testing.

Imaging tools, such as CT and PET scans, can help doctors understand a patient’s disease, but the only way to confirm mesothelioma is through a biopsy — an operation where a surgeon removes tissue or liquid from the suspected tumor area.

An accurate mesothelioma diagnosis is the result of a team of doctors who have the right experience. Not every hospital is equipped to handle this task.

Getting the proper tests may involve travel to see experts, getting a second opinion, and other significant out-of-pocket costs for families. Health insurers are notorious for denying these necessary appointments, further slowing down a person’s journey toward an accurate diagnosis.

7. Approximately 14% of Mesothelioma Diagnoses Are Incorrect

In their assessment of mesothelioma treatment and diagnosis, Carbone and his colleagues reviewed multiple articles that indicate “a very high rate of incorrect diagnoses, ranging from approximately 14% in the Western world to approximately 50% in some developing countries.”

Although there have been advances in mesothelioma research and testing, improvements in accuracy lag behind.

Mesothelioma remains extremely hard to detect and differentiate from other cancers. It’s not enough to just get a second opinion — the physicians who run the tests should be mesothelioma specialists.

“We recommend that a pathologist experienced with diagnosing mesothelioma should confirm all diagnoses,” Carbone concludes.

Mesothelioma Lawsuits Can Provide Compensation

Moving forward after a life-changing mesothelioma diagnosis is challenging beyond words — both for the patient him- or herself and their family members and loved ones.

Oftentimes, people are calling their doctor with mild symptoms, expecting to hear that they have a passing cold. Facing the reality of the situation requires bravery and determination, but you are not alone.

Sokolove Law has more than 4 decades of experience helping people understand their disease and the options they have to fight back. Billions of dollars have been set aside for victims of asbestos exposure.

Contact us today to see if you are eligible to start building your case for compensation.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

The Sokolove Law Content Team is made up of writers, editors, and journalists. We work with case managers and attorneys to keep site information up to date and accurate. Our site has a wealth of resources available for victims of wrongdoing and their families.

Last modified: June 9, 2020

  1. Carbone, M., Adusumilli, P.S., Alexander, H.R., Jr, Baas, P., Bardelli, F., Bononi, A., Bueno, R., Felley‐Bosco, E., Galateau‐Salle, F., Jablons, D., Mansfield, A.S., Minaai, M., de Perrot, M., Pesavento, P., Rusch, V., Severson, D.T., Taioli, E., Tsao, A., Woodard, G., Yang, H., Zauderer, M.G. and Pass, H.I. (2019), Mesothelioma: Scientific clues for prevention, diagnosis, and therapy. CA A Cancer J Clin. Retrieved June 4, 2020, from https://acsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.3322/caac.21572
  2. Mazurek, J. M., Syamlal, G., & Wood, J. M. (2017, August 1). Malignant Mesothelioma Mortality - United States, 1999–2015. Retrieved June 4, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6608a3.htm
  3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2020, April 24) Asbestos. Retrieved on June 4, 2020, from https://www.epa.gov/asbestos