A mesothelioma diagnosis can be severe to make because cancer can look like a cold. So some tests and procedures are often needed to diagnose mesothelioma.
You feel a bit run down. There’s a cough you can’t shake. You have aches and pains in your lower back. You’re weak and out of breath. These are all little things — probably nothing, right?
But all these vague, relatively minor symptoms can add up to a more severe diagnosis than you might think — sporadic cancer called mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma Diagnosis: Evaluating Symptoms and Risk
Mesothelioma is an uncommon kind of cancer — fewer than 3,000 new cases are diagnosed every year in the United States. It most commonly involves the membrane lining the chest cavity and lungs, which is called pleural mesothelioma. Less often, it affects other membranes lining other parts of the body, such as the abdominal lining (called peritoneal mesothelioma).
Subtle respiratory symptoms may not automatically bring cancer to mind, for you or your doctor. But if you’ve experienced these symptoms for some time — particularly if you have been exposed to asbestos in the past — tests to diagnose mesothelioma are probably needed to find out if that’s the cause.
Mesothelioma Diagnosis: Can X-Rays Diagnose This Cancer?
Once a doctor has taken a complete medical history, X-rays will be made. Mesothelioma strikes most often in the lungs and chest area, so chest X-rays are one of the most straightforward tests to diagnose cancer.
An X-ray can spot any fluid that has built up in the lungs, and will sometimes catch calcium buildups in the lungs that are warning signs of pleural mesothelioma, or cancer of the membrane, called the pleura, that lines the lungs. While an X-ray can spot some cases of mesothelioma, a negative X-ray doesn’t rule out mesothelioma. Other tests may have to be performed to get more information.
Mesothelioma Diagnosis: Scans
If the X-ray isn’t clear or shows warning signs of mesothelioma, more detailed tests may be performed. These scanning tests are often ordered to get a better picture of what’s going on in the lungs and chest cavity:
- MRI. A magnetic resonance imaging test is one of the most accurate tools that can diagnose mesothelioma. This massive machine uses magnets and radio waves to provide doctors with multi-dimensional images inside the body. It’s particularly efficient at spotting lung tumors, so it’s often the best option when trying to find a mesothelioma diagnosis.
- CT scan. A computed tomography scan is like a more complex X-ray that provides a better picture. This machine rotates around the body, providing a clear, detailed image of the various sections of the lungs and other areas inside the chest.
- PET scan. A positron emission tomography offers another detailed view inside the body, this time using an injected radioactive glucose material that will be taken up by a tumor and can be detected with the imaging machine.
Mesothelioma Diagnosis: Taking a Close-Up Look
Scanning tests can provide a clearer picture than a simple X-ray, but doctors need a sample of fluid or tissue from a suspicious area to find out if mesothelioma is the cause of the findings. Tests that may be done to diagnose mesothelioma include:
- Tissue samples from the lungs or the pleural membrane lining the chest cavity
- Fluid samples from the area surrounding the lungs (or from the abdomen, if the mesothelioma involves the abdominal lining)
- Thoracoscopy, in which a tube and a camera are inserted through the skin and into the chest so the surgeon can see what’s going on, and remove a piece of tissue
- Surgery to remove all or a portion of a tumor to determine what kind of cancer cells are present
The symptoms of mesothelioma may seem like a mystery because they really could be anything. But doctors have to put together the pieces of the puzzle, such as employment history and medical history, along with current symptoms, to make a proper diagnosis. Often, several different tests may be conducted to see whether mesothelioma is to blame, and how severe the cancer is. From this point, the treatment team can devise the right treatment plan.