Recognizing a Silent Killer: Symptoms and Diagnosis of Malignant Mesothelioma

Malignant mesothelioma has often been called a “silent killer,” and understanding the nature of the disease itself makes it easy to see why. Both its abnormally long latency period and notoriously ambiguous symptomology have been enough to evade even highly experienced medical professionals, which also results in the fact that the illness is usually only diagnosed in its latest stages.

Mesothelioma symptoms closely mimic symptoms of several common and non-life-threatening conditions—like seasonal allergies and the cold virus—during the early phases of presentation. The pleural variety of the illness is most common and may produce persistent coughing and wheezing or a consistently hoarse voice. All of these warning signs, however, are easy to overlook. It is not until later signs—like difficulty breathing or severe chest pain—become noticeable that people will typically seek the counsel of a physician.

When a patient comes in complaining of some of the less recognizable symptoms of malignant mesothelioma, even doctors may be unlikely to pinpoint that diagnosis. This is partially attributable to the fact that mesothelioma is rare—some health professionals will never see such a case in the entirety of their careers. Therefore, without full knowledge of the patient’s complete and whole background, it’s unlikely that mesothelioma will be a first diagnostic consideration.

Even when suspected, before coming to a mesothelioma diagnosis, a physician will likely go through several steps to pinpoint the cause of the symptoms. A first step commonly made is to administer a lung x-ray. Sometimes this initial screener will show changes within the lungs that suggest mesothelioma. More advanced imaging techniques—including CT scans, PET scans and MRIs—may show more detail. But the diagnostic standard for reaching a final diagnosis is usually a biopsy, which necessitates the removal of either fluid or tissue from the affected organ.

After examining the biopsied sample, a medical professional may make an official diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma. It’s very important to remember that the sooner a diagnosis is made, the better the chances of receiving treatment that is effective—even if only temporarily. Advanced-stage cases of mesothelioma often do not respond to treatment of all, making the task of palliative care very difficult.

A patient’s best chance of receiving an accurate diagnosis is to make sure that his or her physician knows the full details of any possible past exposure to asbestos. Because asbestos is the culprit behind the vast majority of malignant mesothelioma cases, knowing that a patient has a history of working with or having other consistent and regular contact with asbestos is a sure tip-off that mesothelioma should be immediately considered as a possible diagnosis.

If you have a history of exposure to asbestos and notice any of the possible signs of mesothelioma, do not hesitate to seek the care of a medical professional, and be sure to reveal any possible links that you may have had to that single most common cause.