Mesothelioma Diagnosis and Screening Methods

To screen patients for asbestos-related illnesses like mesothelioma, doctors have a number of options.

Asbestos has been a known link to a number of health problems for decades, one of the most serious being a form of cancer called malignant mesothelioma. If you're worried about the health effects of long-term exposure to asbestos -- for yourself or for a loved one -- this article explains some of the techniques that are utilized to screen patients and diagnose (or rule out) mesothelioma.

(For a broader look at mesothelioma and other health problems related to asbestos, check out Nolo's article Mesothelioma: Symptoms and Causes of Asbestos Lung Disease.)

Early Diagnosis of Mesothelioma: Look for Symptoms

It isn't easy to spot malignant mesothelioma, especially early on. The path to an accurate diagnosis begins with early recognition of symptoms that might indicate the presence of the disease. Specifically, tell your doctor (or your loved one's doctor) about any of the following -- especially if you're already worried about developing health problems because of exposure to high levels of asbestos:

  • chest pain
  • lower back pain
  • abdominal pain
  • trouble breathing
  • fever
  • coughing up blood
  • trouble swallowing, or
  • hoarse voice.

Taken individually, the symptoms outlined above don't necessarily indicate mesothelioma. They could be related to a much less serious condition, or they may not point to any health problem at all. But since these symptoms could be cause for concern, especially in people who have worked around high levels of asbestos for long periods of time, your doctor will likely want to perform a number of follow-up tests, including x-rays and pulmonary function tests.

Screening Methods for Mesothelioma

If a preliminary medical exam prompts your doctor to perform follow-up tests for the possibility of mesothelioma, here's a look at the kinds of screening procedures that might be used.

Imaging tests. Your doctor may use a number of imaging tests to screen for asbestos-related health problems. These might include x-ray, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), PET (positron emission tomography) scans, and CT (computed tomography) scans. The CT scan is the most modern (and most valuable) technique for screening at-risk patients for signs of mesothelioma. That's because the CT scan produces a cross-section image of a patient's lung or abdomen, giving radiologists a view that standard x-rays can't provide.

Fluid removal and testing. If examination of a patient's chest or abdomen indicates the presence of fluid, the doctor may want to drain the fluid and examine it further. This is done by inserting a needle into the chest (a procedure called thoracentesis) or abdomen (paracentesis) and drawing the fluid out so it can be tested.

Thoracoscopy (tissue sampling). In this procedure, your doctor will use a device called a thoroscope to take a look inside your chest cavity. Like a biopsy, a thoracoscopy involves a small incision in your chest and the removal of a portion of tissue for examination. Patients might feel some pressure in their chest area during this procedure, but it is usually relatively pain-free. (While thoracoscopy involves examination of tissue in the chest, a similar procedure uses a tool called a peritoneoscope to examine tissue in the abdomen.)

Mesothelioma and Asbestos Exposure: Getting Help

If youre concerned about asbestos-related illness because you or a loved one have been exposed to high levels of asbestos (on the job, for example), you may want to talk to an experienced attorney. Find out more about finding and working with an asbestos attorney in Nolo's article How to Hire a Mesothelioma or Asbestos Lawyer. You can use Nolo's trusted Lawyer Directory to get help from an experienced mesothelioma-asbestos attorney.

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