If you or someone you love worked around asbestos, even if it was many years in the past, you should be aware of the signs of mesothelioma. This rare cancer is caused by a victim’s breathing of air contaminated with airborne asbestos fibers. Mesothelioma is cancer of the mesothelium or the lining around the lungs or other organs. An early mesothelioma diagnosis can make a big difference in your treatment options and your life expectancy.
Screening for Mesothelioma
The best option for people with an elevated cancer risk is screening. Screening is regular testing before the onset of symptoms, to detect cancer at a very early stage. Mammograms, prostate exams and colonoscopies are all examples of screening tests for common cancers.
Because mesothelioma is an uncommon type of cancer, there is no widely accepted screening protocol. There are some promising tests, however. Higher than normal amounts of two constituents that can be measured with blood tests, osteopontin and SMRP (soluble mesothelin-related peptides), may indicate mesothelioma. SMRP is a biomarker that mesothelioma cells secrete.
A common test for SMRP levels is the MESOMARK assay, developed by Fujirebio Diagnostics, Inc. The test uses an Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA) to measure the level of SMRP in a blood sample. (This assay can also be used during mesothelioma treatment, to help determine the effectiveness of different therapies.) This test is not conclusive but may point to the need for further testing to determine if you have mesothelioma. Most people who don’t have mesothelioma do not have elevate SMRP levels, so false positives are relatively rare.
If you have a history of exposure to asbestos, be sure and tell your doctor. An early indication of a possible mesothelioma diagnosis through screening can give you a head start on treatment for this deadly form of cancer.
Before Your Mesothelioma Diagnosis
Most people get a mesothelioma diagnosis a bit later, after they are already experiencing some of the symptoms of the disease. These symptoms may include breathing problems (shortness of breath), mysterious fever that isn’t associated with a virus, ongoing nausea, pains in your chest or back, hoarse voice, trouble swallowing, and persistent bloody cough.
Because the signs and symptoms of mesothelioma overlap with many other conditions, your doctor may not consider a mesothelioma diagnosis at first. When you go to your doctor with some or all of these signs, he or she may first want to rule out more common illnesses, everything from asthma and acid reflux to congestive heart failure and pneumonia. This is why it is essential that you tell your primary care physician and any specialists you see about where and when you have been exposed to asbestos. If your doctor knows that you worked in the boiler room on a naval vessel or at a factory that installed asbestos brake linings, he or she is much more likely to test for and rule out mesothelioma when you present with these symptoms.
In the end, you are your own best advocate. Become familiar with the signs and symptoms of mesothelioma and make sure your doctor considers the possibility of a mesothelioma diagnosis if your symptoms seem to match this disease..
Steps in Your Mesothelioma Diagnosis
Once your doctor has ruled out other potential causes for your symptoms he or she may order one or more tests to explore whether a mesothelioma diagnosis is warranted. It sometimes takes more than one test to conclusively determine whether you have this form of cancer.
A number of fairly standard medical tests can reveal unusual growths that could point to the possibility of a mesothelioma diagnosis. If x-rays don’t reveal what’s going on in your lungs, your doctor might order a CT scan, a PET scan or an MRI to look at your tissues and organs.
Your doctor may also want to take a more direct look at your mesothelium. This is done with a tiny scope that can explore the lining around your lungs or other organs. Your doctor will make a very small incision to insert the scope. This exam, called a thoracoscopy when it examines your chest and the area around your lungs and a peritoneoscopy when it looks at the abdomen, gives your doctor information that could only have been discovered through open surgery not so long ago. Medicine has made huge advances with minimally invasive diagnostic tools such as these.
These exams look for the presence of fluid in the mesothelium. Fluid buildup around the lungs or other organs is a common symptom of mesothelioma. Your doctor may drain this fluid and test it, as well as remove a small tissue sample for mesothelioma cells.
Although mesothelioma is much rarer than other forms of cancer, its strong association with asbestos exposure and with certain corporations and professions has brought extra attention to this disease. If your doctor gives you a mesothelioma diagnosis, you may want to consult with a mesothelioma specialist to find out the latest therapies and to get a treatment plan tailored to your specific illness.
You cannot diagnose mesothelioma yourself. If you suspect you may have this disease, talk with your doctor about your risk factors. If you’re not satisfied with the response, seek a second opinion. It’s important to get a mesothelioma diagnosis from a qualified physician so you can start the best available treatment as soon as possible.