Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis

Mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed because it is rare and does not always have specific symptoms. Many doctors are unlikely to suspect this form of cancer unless the patient worked in a high-risk occupation for asbestos exposure. Visiting a mesothelioma specialist is the best way to ensure a thorough examination and accurate diagnosis.

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What Is a Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis?

A mesothelioma misdiagnosis occurs when doctors mistakenly attribute symptoms of mesothelioma to another condition.

Pleural mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed as other, more common illnesses that develop in the chest, such as lung cancer or pneumonia. Peritoneal mesothelioma may be misdiagnosed for other abdominal-related conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or ovarian cancer.

Misdiagnosis is more likely to happen when doctors are unaware of a patient’s history of asbestos exposure. Without knowing of previous exposure, doctors may fail to connect a patient’s symptoms with an asbestos-related disease like malignant mesothelioma.

Pleural Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis

Since pleural mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer, it is frequently misdiagnosed. However, failure to diagnose pleural mesothelioma properly and early can delay treatment and affect a patient’s prognosis.

Early-Stage Pleural Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis

In its earlier stages (stages 1 and 2), pleural mesothelioma is extraordinarily challenging to spot within the human body. As a result, it is commonly misdiagnosed as other respiratory conditions with similar symptoms.

Below, learn more about common misdiagnoses for early-stage pleural mesothelioma.

Emphysema

Emphysema is caused when the alveoli in the lungs become damaged. Like mesothelioma, the condition gets progressively worse over time, making it 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 symptoms shared between pleural mesothelioma and emphysema:

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

Bronchitis and 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. Mesothelioma, on the other hand, develops when asbestos fibers cause cancerous cell mutations in the lung lining (pleura).

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Early-stage pleural mesothelioma may also be misdiagnosed as 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 other common symptoms of COPD.

Late-Stage Pleural Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis

Once a patient displays late-stage (stages 3 and 4) mesothelioma symptoms, or once a doctor discovers a cancerous tumor, it’s still possible for pleural mesothelioma misdiagnosis to occur.

In many cases, advanced pleural mesothelioma is misdiagnosed as a different type of cancer, such as lung cancer or adenocarcinoma. In some cases, it 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

Adenocarcinoma is another form of lung cancer caused by tumors in the epithelial lining of the lungs.

Mesothelioma behaves in a very similar manner to adenocarcinoma, which makes it possible for even experienced oncologists and surgeons to confuse the two cancers.

Pleural Plaques

People exposed to asbestos may develop pleural plaques, a noncancerous condition in which a chalky substance builds up on the pleura (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.

Further, pleural plaques are often left untreated, meaning pleural mesothelioma patients who are misdiagnosed may not get the treatment they need to remove their tumors and slow disease progression.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis

Peritoneal mesothelioma doesn’t have one or two obvious symptoms. Instead, it shares symptoms with many other illnesses, making it easy for medical professionals to mistake this rare disease for more common illnesses or types of cancer.

Nonspecific peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain and swelling
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss

Below, learn more about illnesses commonly mistaken for peritoneal mesothelioma.

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): IBS and mesothelioma share symptoms of abdominal pain, bloating, and constipation.
  • Crohn’s disease: Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes pain and inflammation in any part of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
  • Ovarian cancer: Peritoneal mesothelioma can be easily misdiagnosed as ovarian cancer because both conditions largely affect the female demographic.

Whether you suspect a peritoneal mesothelioma misdiagnosis or have already been diagnosed, it’s important to get a second opinion from an experienced mesothelioma specialist.

Misdiagnosing Mesothelioma Stage

Even if a doctor identifies a patient’s condition as mesothelioma, there can still be a misdiagnosis when it comes to determining the disease stage.

Different stages require different types of treatment, which means that misdiagnosing mesothelioma stage can be just as harmful as a misdiagnosis of the condition.

Typically, only patients whose cancer is localized (early-stage) can undergo curative surgery to remove their tumors. Patients with advanced (late-stage) cancer are usually ineligible for life-extending surgery.

A proper diagnosis of mesothelioma stage can help ensure that patients can access the most effective treatments for their individual cancer.

How Is Mesothelioma Misdiagnosed?

A mesothelioma misdiagnosis usually stems from its extensive diagnostic process and the fact that many doctors lack experience with the cancer. Because mesothelioma is so rare, it is not usually the first thing that comes to a doctor’s mind when a patient reports their symptoms.

Diagnostic techniques that may lead to misdiagnosis include:

  • Histology: When mesothelioma cells are viewed under a microscope, they may resemble other metastatic (advanced) cancers.
  • Cytology: When pathologists test fluid or tissue samples, they use specialized “stains” to indicate whether cancer is present. However, staining patterns alone can lead to misdiagnosis without considering other features of the tumor and the patient’s medical history.
  • Imaging Tests: Despite CT scans (computed tomography scans) and X-rays being generally reliable when identifying common cancers, mesothelioma is so rare that a biopsy is needed to see the full picture.

A tissue biopsy is the best option for ensuring an accurate mesothelioma diagnosis.

Why Is a Correct Mesothelioma Diagnosis Important?

Getting a correct diagnosis and avoiding misdiagnosis helps doctors tailor a mesothelioma patient’s treatment plan to their cancer, giving them a better chance of survival.

That being said, if you suspect you have mesothelioma — or that your current diagnosis is incorrect — it is important to visit a mesothelioma specialist.

Even if you’ve already consulted your primary doctor, if you were previously exposed to asbestos and are displaying mesothelioma symptoms, getting a second opinion from a mesothelioma specialist helps ensure you can access the best treatment options possible.

Contact the Mesothelioma Justice Network team today for help connecting with a mesothelioma specialist.

Mesothelioma Support Team
Reviewed by:Dr. Assuntina Sacco

Board-Certified Oncologist

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Assuntina Sacco, MD is an Associate Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Moores Cancer Center, where she also serves as the Medical Director of Infusion Services. She is a board-certified medical oncologist trained to treat all solid tumor types, with the use of chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, and clinical trials.

Dr. Assuntina Sacco is an independently paid medical reviewer.

Stephanie KiddWritten by:

Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie Kidd grew up in a family of civil servants, blue-collar workers, and medical caregivers. Upon graduating Summa Cum Laude from Stetson University, she began her career specializing in worker safety regulations and communications. Now, a proud member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) and Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Justice Network, Stephanie serves as a voice for mesothelioma victims and their families.

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