Mesothelioma and Pneumonia
Mesothelioma is a complex, rare form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure. It has very few symptoms in its early stages, which means it is very difficult to detect. An additional problem is that the symptoms of later stage mesothelioma are very close to those of other conditions, including pneumonia.
The Symptoms of Mesothelioma
Depending on the type and stage of mesothelioma that the patient suffers from, symptoms will vary quite significantly. One common symptom in early stage mesothelioma is pleural effusion, or a fluid buildup in the lungs. Unfortunately, this can often be confused with pneumonia, meaning patients may be misdiagnosed.
Mesothelioma, which can affect the lungs (most common), abdomen, heart, or testes, is caused by exposure to asbestos fibers. With pleural mesothelioma, which affects the lungs, the pleura, which are the membranes enveloping the lungs, become inflamed and irritated by the microscopic fibers. This makes the layers of the pleura thicker and causes fluid to build up, preventing the lungs from functioning properly. This leads to painful breathing, shortness of breath, and chest pains. Statistically speaking:
• 90% of mesothelioma patients have a pleural effusion.
• 79% experience shortness of breath.
• 64% experience chest pain.
• 36% experience a dry cough.
• 30% experience weight loss.
This is significant, because the same statistics exist for people with pneumonia.
Stage 1 and 2 Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms
It is very rare for people to be diagnosed with mesothelioma at stage 1 or 2. This is because the condition is mainly asymptomatic. If they do, however, they will be found to have:
• Persistent coughs
• Chest pain
• Pleural effusion
• Body aches
• Weight loss
Compare this to the symptoms of pneumonia, which are listed as being:
• Shortness of breath
• Chest pain
There are differences in the symptoms depending on whether the pneumonia is bacterial or viral, but the main symptoms perfectly emulate those of mesothelioma. When people consult a physician with these symptoms, they will almost always be suspected to have pneumonia, rather than mesothelioma. Treatment will be provided as such and since this treatment is likely to resolve some of the pleural effusion, people will feel better and presume their physician was right with the diagnosis.
Interestingly, 25% of mesothelioma patients have pleural effusion symptoms before they visit a physician.
Another reason why mesothelioma and pneumonia are often confused is because patients experience pleural thickening. This means that the pleura become scarred and the lungs lose their elasticity. When this happens, normal breathing becomes impaired. Various illnesses can cause this, all of them more common than mesothelioma, and they include pneumonia, empyema, pleurisy, and tuberculosis.
Stage 3 and 4 Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms
Most mesothelioma cases are diagnosed when the cancer has reached stage 3 or 4, at which point the symptoms are more severe. However, they continue to mimic those of pneumonia, and include:
• Painful breathing
• Night sweats
• Chest pain
• Persistent cough with mucus, sometimes bloody
• Pleural effusion
It is quite common for physicians to drain the fluid on the lungs. This fluid will then be tested, often to see whether viral or bacterial pneumonia is present. Unfortunately, testing the fluids on the lungs rarely proves or disproves whether mesothelioma is present. This is achieved through CT scans and PET scans, which are often not conducted because it is pneumonia that is first suspected.
It is not uncommon, as you can see, for pleural mesothelioma to be misdiagnosed. In fact, in the early stages, the symptoms are so closely related to pneumonia and influenza that most physicians don’t even consider it. Because the condition is so asymptomatic, and the symptoms that do exist in the early stages are so minor, most patients do not seek medical advice. Usually, by the time the symptoms become more pronounced and more indicative of mesothelioma, the cancer is already is the advanced stages and has become harder to treat.
Early detection is vital in order to improve Mesothelioma survival rates. The current prognosis for mesothelioma patients is just 12 to 18 months from the time they are diagnosed. A lot of work is now being done to improve these rates and to develop new forms of treatment. All scientists agree, however, that the earlier the condition is detected, the better the prognosis is.
There are ways to 100% determine whether a patient is suffering from mesothelioma, viral pneumonia, bacterial pneumonia, or lung cancer – the four conditions most commonly confused by physicians. If a patient presents with a history of working in industries where high levels of asbestos were present (constructing, mining, shipyards, U.S. Navy), a physician should always perform tests to determine whether asbestosis and/or mesothelioma are present. If it is found, through diagnostics, that it is not an asbestos-related condition, they should continue to monitor their patient regardless so that the cancer can be spotted as early as possible. Mesothelioma has a very long latency period, ranging from 10 to 60 years, which is why people who were, or may have been, exposed should be monitored for the rest of their lives.
Oncologists and physicians use a number of specific diagnostic tools to confirm whether or not mesothelioma is present. These tools include:
• The SOMAmer panel
• The MESOMARK
• A CT scan
• An MRI scan
• An x-ray
• A PET scan
• Blood tests
Unfortunately, there is no one single tool that can always confirm or rule out mesothelioma, and many patients have to undergo multiple tests with each test having the possibility of pointing to another condition like pneumonia first. Despite widespread knowledge about the dangers of asbestos, and despite physicians knowing that new cases of mesothelioma have likely not peaked yet, the condition is incredibly rare. As such, they will almost always consider other types of illnesses, including lung cancer and pneumonia, first. Usually, it takes between two and three months of people noticing their symptoms for a team of specialists to be able to determine that the symptoms are actually caused by mesothelioma.
As such, a diagnosis is a three step approach:
1. The patient notices symptoms, usually between 20 and 50 years after having been exposed to asbestos. These symptoms are usually minor and can easily be confused with pneumonia or the flu.
2. The patient makes an appointment with a physician because there has been no improvement in the symptoms. This usually starts six months after the symptoms first showed up. Preliminary tests are performed, and if the physician suspects that some kind of cancer may be responsible, the patient will be referred to an oncologist.
3. A final diagnosis is made by an oncologist. A number of different tests will be conducted, all the while focusing on the overall health and well-being of the patient.