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Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis

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The rarity of mesothelioma makes it an incredibly challenging cancer for doctors to diagnose. In fact, nonspecialists often confuse mesothelioma with less serious conditions. Avoid an incorrect or delayed diagnosis by consulting an expert in asbestos-related diseases.

When mesothelioma is diagnosed at an early stage, before the cancer has time to invade lymph nodes and other parts of the body, treatment is more effective and the prognosis is most promising. But the disease is rarer than other cancers, with only about 3,000 cases diagnosed in the U.S. annually. Most doctors — including oncologists — will never attend to a mesothelioma patient in their career.

If you have a history of asbestos exposure and your cancer care team lacks experience with the complexities of diagnosing mesothelioma, you are more likely to receive an incorrect diagnosis. Even worse, your doctors could start treatment for a cancer or condition you don’t actually have.

Doctor looking into microscope

A misdiagnosis can delay proper treatment, limiting the treatment options available to you and reducing their effectiveness. For a cancer as aggressive as mesothelioma, there is no time to waste.

Fortunately, specialists well-versed in the latest breakthroughs in detecting and treating this cancer are helping patients improve their outcomes nationwide. When you seek the help of an expert, you’re much more likely to receive a prompt and accurate diagnosis that will get you personalized treatment as soon as possible.

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Diagnostic Challenges

There are four distinct types of mesothelioma, each forming in a different part of the body. While each type has unique characteristics that affect treatment and life expectancy, they all have one thing in common: Diagnosis is always a challenge.

No matter the type, mesotheliomas have nonspecific symptoms that can be caused by many conditions, including other cancers and less serious illnesses. Because mesothelioma is so rare, nonspecialists tend to misdiagnose patients with a more common disease.

Mesothelioma patients typically receive a diagnosis two to three months after first noticing symptoms, but in many cases a misdiagnosis causes a delay of up to six months.

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Common Misdiagnoses

Once your doctor confirms a mesothelioma diagnosis, a team of specialists will build a treatment plan that offers the best chance of improving your prognosis and quality of life. Currently, the most effective and reliable treatments include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. You may even qualify for experimental therapies offered in clinical trials.

  • Pleural Mesothelioma

    Pleural Mesothelioma

    Mesothelioma of the chest

    Pleural mesothelioma is the most commonly diagnosed type, comprising about 75 percent of all cases. It forms on the mesothelial lining of the lungs, known as the pleura.

    Symptoms include:

    • Chest pain
    • Persistent cough
    • Shortness of breath
    • Difficulty swallowing

    May be misdiagnosed as:

    • Pneumonia/pneumonitis
    • Tuberculosis
    • Synovial sarcomatoid carcinoma
    • Metastatic melanoma
    • Thymoma
  • Peritoneal Mesothelioma


    Mesothelioma of the abdomen

    Symptoms include:

    • Abdominal pain
    • Abdominal swelling
    • Nausea / vomiting
    • Weight loss

    May be misdiagnosed as:

    • Primary peritoneal carcinoma
    • Ovarian carcinoma
    • Colorectal adenocarcinoma
  • Pericardial Mesothelioma


    Mesothelioma of the heart

    Pericardial mesothelioma represents about 1 percent of all diagnoses. This type forms on the mesothelial lining of the heart, known as the pericardium.

    Symptoms include:

    • Chest pain
    • Persistent cough
    • Irregular heartbeat
    • Difficulty breathing

    May be misdiagnosed as:

    • Tuberculous pericarditis
    • Mesothelial reactive hyperplasia
    • Leiomyosarcoma
    • Fibrosarcoma
    • Rhabdomyosarcoma
  • Testicular Cancer


    Mesothelioma of the testicles

    There are few known cases of testicular mesothelioma, the rarest of all types. It forms on the mesothelial lining of the testicles, known as the tunica vaginalis.

    Symptoms include:

    • Testicular pain
    • Scrotal swelling

    May be misdiagnosed as:

    • Epididymitis
    • Florid mesothelial hyperplasia
    • Carcinoma of the rete testis
    • Adenomatoid tumor
    • Testicular germ cell tumors

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And it's not only symptoms that complicate diagnosis. Even imaging scans can be misleading to doctors. In a case report on a U.S. Navy veteran with a history of asbestos exposure, doctors told the patient he might have pleural mesothelioma after a chest X-ray revealed a growth on the lining of his lungs. However, a tissue sample of the growth from a procedure called a biopsy came back negative for cancer. Doctors diagnosed the patient with inflammation of the lung tissue, called pneumonitis.

This example highlights the importance of finding a specialist who understands that many diseases may appear to be mesothelioma on an imaging scan. Even if a patient has a history of asbestos exposure and is experiencing symptoms consistent with mesothelioma, doctors must perform a biopsy and other tests to confirm a diagnosis of mesothelioma.

How to Avoid a Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis

One of the most important steps you can take to avoid a misdiagnosis is finding a qualified mesothelioma specialist. It takes an experienced doctor to recognize that a patient’s symptoms, imaging scans and work history suggest mesothelioma.

  • What's your story?

    Explain Past Exposure

    Recall as much as you can

    If you have a history of asbestos exposure, tell your primary care doctor as much as you can about your past exposures to help avoid a misdiagnosis. Asbestos-related diseases can take decades to develop, so it's okay if you can't remember everything.

  • Cause and effect

    Share Your Work History

    Share information about occupational exposures

    It's most important to tell your doctor about your work history, when you were exposed to asbestos and the duration and extent of your exposures. Sharing this information is crucial. Otherwise, your doctor might not immediately suspect mesothelioma.

  • You are in good hands

    Ask About Experience

    How much of an expert are they?

    If your doctor does say that you might have mesothelioma, you should find out how much experience he or she has diagnosing and treating the disease. Be sure to ask how many mesothelioma patients they have treated, and what therapies the treatment center can provide.

  • Free consultation

    Get a Second Opinion

    Ask for a recommendation if you have doubts

    If you’re uncomfortable with your doctor’s level of experience, ask if they can recommend a specialist, or find one on your own for a second opinion.

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A qualified mesothelioma specialist has the knowledge and resources to confirm your diagnosis with certainty. Experts in asbestos-related disease will likely detect the cancer sooner than nonspecialists, and that will help you get the treatments you need early on when they are most effective.

Additional Resources

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Written By Vanessa Blanco
Medical Review By Dr. Susan E. Lawrence


  1. Ahmed, I., Tipu, S., & Ishtiaq, S. (2013, November). Malignant Mesothelioma. Retrieved from
  2. Neumann, V. et al. (2013, May). Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma. Retrieved from
  3. Rdzanek, M. et al. (2006, February). Spindle Cell Tumors of the Pleura: Differential Diagnosis. Retrieved from
  4. Bridda, A. et al. (2007, May 10). Peritoneal Mesothelioma: A Review. Retrieved from
  5. Lee, M.J. et al. (2011, June). A Case of Malignant Pericardial Mesothelioma with Constrictive Pericarditis Physiology Misdiagnosed as Pericardial Metastatic Cancer. Retrieved from Retrieved from
  6. Papi, M. et al. (2005, January 14). Malignant Pericardial Mesothelioma. Report of Two Cases, Review of the Literature and Differential Diagnosis. Retrieved from
  7. Thomason, R. et al. (1994). Primary Malignant Mesothelioma of the Pericardium. Retrieved from
  8. Yen, C.-H. et al. (2012). Malignant Mesothelioma of the Tunica Vaginalis Testis: A Malignancy Associated with Recurrent Epididymitis? Retrieved from
  9. Chekol, S., & Sun, C. (2012, January). Malignant Mesothelioma of the Tunica Vaginalis Testis: Diagnostic Studies and Differential Diagnosis. Retrieved from
  10. Kunkel, D., & Cheng, E. (2010, September). The Pleural-based Mass: A Case Report and Review of the Literature. Retrieved from

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