Common Pleural Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis

Pleural mesothelioma is a challenging disease to diagnose, typically hiding symptoms until the cancer has progressed into later stages. Unfortunately, a pleural mesothelioma misdiagnosis can happen and often has devastating consequences for the patient.

What Is a Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis?

A mesothelioma misdiagnosis occurs when doctors mistakenly attribute mesothelioma symptoms to another condition. Misdiagnosis is more likely to happen when the doctor or patient is unaware of their history of asbestos exposure. Without knowing of previous exposure, doctors may fail to connect a patient’s symptoms with asbestos-related disease like mesothelioma.

Pleural mesothelioma is a relatively rare disease, and medical professionals often diagnose more common conditions that have a higher likelihood of occurring. In some cases, doctors may be unfamiliar with mesothelioma cases and don’t consider it a possibility.

Unfortunately, pleural mesothelioma misdiagnosis has significant health impacts, as mesothelioma requires specific, aggressive strategies for the best chance of a positive outcome. Failing to treat pleural mesothelioma properly can delay treatment and affect a patient’s prognosis.

Early-Stage Misdiagnosis

In its earlier stages, pleural mesothelioma is extraordinarily challenging to spot within the human body. As a result, early-stage pleural mesothelioma is commonly misdiagnosed as other respiratory conditions or illnesses, because the symptoms are similar to more common conditions.

Early stage pleural mesothelioma misdiagnosis include:

  • Emphysema
  • Bronchitis
  • Chest infections
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)


Emphysema is caused when the alveoli in the lungs become damaged and, like mesothelioma, the condition gets progressively worse over time. Therefore, it’s common for doctors to misdiagnose early-stage pleural mesothelioma is emphysema.

Emphysema is typically recognized by two common symptoms of pleural mesothelioma: shortness of breath and a chronic cough.

Other common symptoms shared between pleural mesothelioma and emphysema include:

  • Wheezing
  • Abundance of mucus
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lung infections

Bronchitis or Chest Infections

Bronchitis and chest infections also share many of the same symptoms as early-stage pleural mesothelioma. Difficulty breathing, coughing and mucus production are symptoms of all three conditions, as well as fatigue and fever.

However, bronchitis and chest infections are typically caused by viral infections, similar to cold or flu viruses, while mesothelioma is caused by cancerous cell mutations in the lung lining (pleura).

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Early-stage pleural mesothelioma may also be misdiagnosed as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a condition in which the lungs are damaged after exposure to irritants.

COPD is commonly associated with smoking to the point where the chronic, phlegmy cough is nicknamed “smoker’s cough.” Chest tightness, wheezing and shortness of breath are the other common symptoms of COPD.

Late-Stage Misdiagnosis

Once a patient displays late-stage mesothelioma symptoms, or a doctor discovers a cancerous tumor, it’s still possible for pleural mesothelioma misdiagnosis to occur. In many cases, pleural mesothelioma is misdiagnosed as a different type of cancer, such as lung cancer or adenocarcinoma. In some cases, pleural mesothelioma is misdiagnosed as pleural plaques.

Lung Cancer

The damage mesothelioma causes to the lung, as well as the tumors that are present, can be misdiagnosed as lung cancer—a condition separate from mesothelioma with different causes and prognosis.

While both mesothelioma and lung cancer can be treated with surgery, pleural mesothelioma is more aggressive and may require specific supplemental treatment, such as heated chemotherapy.


Adenocarcinoma is another form of lung cancer caused by tumors in the epithelial lining of the lungs. Mesothelioma behaves in a very similar manner, which makes it possible for even experienced oncologists and surgeons to confuse the two diseases.

Pleural Plaques

People exposed to asbestos may develop pleural plaques, a condition where a chalky substance builds up on the pleural lining of the lungs. Because mesothelioma and pleural plaques are both located in the lung lining and caused by asbestos exposure, it’s possible for doctors to mistake pleural mesothelioma for pleural plaques.

Pleural plaques are not cancerous and are often left untreated. Pleural mesothelioma patients misdiagnosed with pleural plaques won’t get the treatment they need to remove the pleural tumors and slow disease progression.

Misdiagnosing Stage and Cell Type

While it’s possible to misdiagnose pleural mesothelioma as an entirely different disease, it’s also possible to misdiagnose the stage or the cell type (epithelioid, sarcomatoid, biphasic). Because different stages and cell types require different types of treatment, misdiagnosing the stage or cell type can be just as harmful as a misdiagnosis of the condition.

Getting Second Opinions From Mesothelioma Specialists

If you were previously exposed to asbestos and are displaying mesothelioma symptoms, it’s critical to get a second opinion from a mesothelioma specialist. Unlike general oncologists, mesothelioma specialists are highly experienced in recognizing and treating mesothelioma.

Even if you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, it’s still important to get a second opinion from a mesothelioma specialist. It’s critical that you are accurately diagnosed with the right stage and cell type to ensure you receive the best treatment strategy possible.

Alternatively, if you don’t think you’ve been exposed to asbestos, but you suspect you may have mesothelioma, trust your instincts and get a second opinion from a mesothelioma specialist. A second opinion is always important for any serious medical diagnosis, as it can save your life.

Author:Stephanie Kidd

Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Justice Network

Stephanie Kidd

Stephanie Kidd works tirelessly as a dedicated advocate for the vulnerable and underrepresented. Stephanie worked as a copywriter for an agency whose focus was communicating safety procedures on construction work sites. With her extensive background in victim advocacy and a dedication to seeing justice done, Stephanie works hard to ensure that all online content is reliable, truthful and helpful.

Last modified: May 29, 2019

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