Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis

Quick Summary

Mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed at first by general practitioners or oncologists. When mesothelioma is mistaken for another, less serious condition, it can result in the patient not receiving the right type of treatment. For the best chance at survival, it’s critical to consult a mesothelioma specialist and obtain an accurate diagnosis.

Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis Overview

Mesothelioma is notoriously difficult to diagnosis, often resulting in misdiagnoses that can jeopardize the patient’s survival and quality of life. If you’ve been given the wrong diagnosis or you suspect you may have been misdiagnosed, then here is what you need to know about a mesothelioma misdiagnosis:

  • All forms of mesothelioma can be misdiagnosed for other conditions or cancers
  • Early mesothelioma symptoms are non-specific and can be mistaken for many conditions
  • Some types of mesothelioma cells look like other, far more common cancer cells
  • A misdiagnosis usually occurs due to an inexperienced physician not familiar with this rare cancer type
  • Incorrect pathology results or incomplete biopsy samples can cause a misdiagnosis
  • Getting the right diagnosis from a mesothelioma specialist as soon as possible is critical to receiving life-extending treatments

What is a Misdiagnosis?

Simply put a misdiagnosis is when a doctor tells a patient they have one condition only later to find out they’ve had an entirely different condition all along. While the majority of doctors do their absolute best to accurately diagnose and treat their patients, there are cases where this doesn’t happen, and for many reasons. Finding out you’ve been misdiagnosed is frustrating and upsetting and feels like you’re starting over.

Misdiagnosis Update

A misdiagnosis can be an emotionally devastating experience for patients and their families. It’s important to rely on support from your team of specialists who understand your condition and can give you hope again.


Unfortunately, with mesothelioma, a misdiagnosis is common because of how rare and unknown the disease is. When doctors do eventually identify the correct condition, it puts patients back on the right track to undergo the most effective and potentially life-saving treatments.

Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis Factors

All patients who have been misdiagnosed or suspect they may have been misdiagnosed should be aware of all the factors that can lead to this situation. During the diagnostic process, doctors take into account many different factors that all get pieced together to form a diagnosis. If even one of those factors is incomplete or inaccurate, or a separate factor was missed altogether, then it can lead to a misdiagnosis.

Here are some of the reasons why a mesothelioma misdiagnosis can occur:

  • Inexperienced Medical Team: The primary reason a mesothelioma misdiagnosis occurs is due to a lack of experience on the part of the medical team involved in identifying the condition. Most doctors never deal with mesothelioma and cannot correctly diagnose this disease. Even a doctor who has seen one or two mesothelioma cases doesn’t have nearly enough experience to treat this complex cancer.
  • Missed Information: Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma. Without knowing a patient’s past history of asbestos exposure, doctors may never consider mesothelioma as a possibility when examining their patients.
  • Each Case is Unique: Even if you do see a doctor who has had experience with mesothelioma, they still may not be able to correctly identify your unique condition. That’s because no two cases of mesothelioma are the same and your location, cell type and stage may be misdiagnosed.
  • Mistaken Pathology: When pathologists look at tumor tissue samples under a microscope, they may mistake mesothelioma cells for other cancer cells that appear and behave similarly. An inexperienced pathologist can diagnose your condition as a different type of cancer, such as adenocarcinoma.
  • Incomplete Biopsies: If not enough sample tissue is collected during a biopsy, it can produce incomplete results. Not having a large enough sample from a biopsy can lead to fault histology—studying cells. Additionally, if doctors rely solely on fluid samples, it can also lead to a misdiagnosis because mesothelioma cells from fluid often don’t appear properly under a microscope.

How Can Mesothelioma be Misdiagnosed?

With so many different factors contributing to a misdiagnosis, there are a few ways doctors can mistake your condition. Each type of misdiagnosis happens at a different stage in the diagnostic process, whether it’s from the patient’s general practitioner or all the way up to a thoracic or gastrointestinal oncologist.

A misdiagnosis puts a patient on the wrong treatment plan, so it’s important for everyone who has been misdiagnosed to understand how it has affected their treatment. Here are the ways mesothelioma can be misdiagnosed:

Misdiagnosing the Disease

Early stage symptoms are not only vague but they are also 10-50 years removed from the initial source of symptoms—asbestos exposure. Such a long latency period leaves many doctors blind as to what could be causing early mesothelioma signs like chest or abdominal pain, persistent coughing and unexplained weight loss. With these general symptoms, doctors can diagnose pneumonia or IBS, never suspecting cancer, let alone mesothelioma.

Misdiagnosing the Cancer Type

Because mesothelioma cancer cells mimic other, more common types of cells, oncologists often diagnose mesothelioma patients with other cancer types such as lung, ovarian, breast or lymphoma. Know a patient has cancer is not enough. Each type of cancer requires a different treatment plan, and treatments for mesothelioma must be highly personalized for each patient to be effective.

Misdiagnosing the Stage

When patients do finally receive a mesothelioma diagnosis, they may be given the wrong disease stage if they’ve been treated by someone not familiar with it. Doctors may tell patients that their disease is actually far more advanced than it is, which rules out important surgical options. Conversely, patients may receive an optimistic diagnosis that turns out to have a poorer prognosis. In this case, patients are still given new treatment options, such as through clinical trials, which offer new and novel therapies not yet available to the public.

Being diagnosed with the right cancer type and stage is critical to being put on the most effective treatment plan for your exact condition.

Common Misdiagnoses by Mesothelioma Location

Anyone going through a mesothelioma misdiagnosis should be aware of the common types of misdiagnoses that occur. The more information you have about the complexities of mesothelioma, the better prepared you’ll be to take charge of your health and treatment decisions.

Here are some of the common conditions that patients are diagnosed with instead of mesothelioma:

Pleural Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis:

  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Pneumonitis—lung inflammation
  • Emphysema
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Asthma
  • Lung cancer
  • Adenocarcinoma—a cancer that affects mucus-secreting glands

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis:

  • Hernia
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Other gastrointestinal disorders
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Other abdominal cancers

Pericardial Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis:

  • Heart diseases such as arteriosclerosis
  • Heart failure
  • Other sarcoma cancers affecting the heart

Get a Second Opinion from a Mesothelioma Specialist

Mesothelioma specialists have decades of experience researching this incredibly complex disease. Teams of mesothelioma doctors work cooperatively together, including pathologists familiar with mesothelioma cell types, to identify mesothelioma and correctly stage the disease. By working with a mesothelioma specialist, you can obtain the correct information about your condition after a misdiagnosis.

It’s vital to seek a second or third opinion from a specialist so you can be placed on the most effective treatment plan for your unique condition. Contact Mesothelioma Help Now today for more information on mesothelioma misdiagnosis and what to do next. Our Patient Advocates are here to support you and answer all your questions about the mesothelioma diagnosis process.

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Author

Sources
  1. Frontiers in Genetics, “Tumors that mimic asbestos-related mesothelioma: time to consider a genetics-based tumor registry?” Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4038924/. Accessed on December 29, 2017.
  2. Mesothelioma research Foundation of America, “Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis” Retrieved from: http://www.mesorfa.org/about-meso/diagnosis.php. Accessed on December 29, 2017.

Last modified: March 29, 2018