Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis

Mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed because it is rare and does not always have specific symptoms. Many doctors are unlikely to suspect this form of cancer unless the patient worked with or around asbestos earlier in life. Seeing a cancer doctor is the best way to avoid a mesothelioma misdiagnosis.

Fact-Checked and Medically Reviewed By: Dr. Assuntina Sacco

What Is a Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis?

A misdiagnosis of mesothelioma occurs when doctors mistake signs or symptoms of this cancer for another condition.

  • Pleural mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed as a more common illness that develops in the chest, such as lung cancer or pneumonia.
  • Peritoneal mesothelioma may be misdiagnosed for other abdominal-related conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or ovarian cancer.

Mesothelioma misdiagnosis is more likely to happen when doctors are unaware of a patient’s history of asbestos exposure — especially because this cancer is so rare and shares symptoms with more common health problems.

However, you can take action to avoid a mesothelioma misdiagnosis. Find top doctors who can properly diagnose and treat mesothelioma in our Free Mesothelioma Guide, shipped overnight.

Mesothelioma Guide Images
Get Your Free 2023 Mesothelioma Guide
  • Top treatments & doctors
  • Financial assistance
  • Accessing VA benefits

Get Your Free Guide

Pleural Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis

Since malignant pleural mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer, it is frequently misdiagnosed. However, failure to diagnose pleural mesothelioma properly and early can delay treatment and affect a patient’s prognosis.

Early-Stage Pleural Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis

A doctor reviews a chest X-ray with a patient

In its earlier stages (stages 1 and 2), pleural mesothelioma is very hard to diagnose. As a result, it is commonly misdiagnosed as other respiratory conditions with similar symptoms.

Below, learn more about common misdiagnoses for early-stage pleural mesothelioma.

Emphysema

Emphysema is caused when the alveoli (tiny air sacs in the lungs) become damaged. Like mesothelioma, the condition gets progressively worse over time, making it common for doctors to misdiagnose early-stage pleural mesothelioma as emphysema.

Emphysema is typically recognized by two common symptoms: shortness of breath and a chronic cough. Unfortunately, these are also very common symptoms of pleural mesothelioma.

Other symptoms pleural mesothelioma and emphysema share include:

  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lung infections
  • Wheezing

Bronchitis and Chest Infections

Bronchitis and chest infections also share many of the same symptoms as early-stage pleural mesothelioma.

Symptoms shared by all three conditions include:

  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Fever

However, bronchitis and chest infections are typically caused by viruses. Mesothelioma, on the other hand, develops when asbestos fibers cause cancerous cell mutations in the lung lining (pleura).

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Early-stage pleural mesothelioma may also be misdiagnosed as COPD, a condition in which the lungs are damaged after exposure to irritants.

COPD is commonly associated with smoking to the point where the chronic, phlegmy cough is nicknamed “smoker’s cough.” Chest tightness, wheezing, and shortness of breath are other common symptoms of COPD.

While smoking can certainly make the symptoms of mesothelioma worse, the only cause of this cancer is asbestos exposure.

If you’re concerned that you might have mesothelioma, don’t wait. Make an appointment with a doctor who can properly diagnose and treat you.

14 Questions to Ask Your Doctor packet
Free Download: 14 Questions to Ask Your Doctor
  • Preparing for treatment
  • Finding clinical trials
  • Getting a second opinion

Get Your Free Download

Late-Stage Pleural Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis

It’s still possible for a pleural mesothelioma misdiagnosis to occur, even if a patient displays late-stage (stages 3 and 4) mesothelioma symptoms, or after a doctor discovers a cancerous tumor.

In many cases, advanced-stage pleural mesothelioma is misdiagnosed as a different type of cancer, such as lung cancer or adenocarcinoma. In some cases, it is misdiagnosed as pleural plaques, which are not cancer but also stem from asbestos exposure.

Lung Cancer

The damage pleural mesothelioma causes to the lung, as well as the tumors that are present, can be misdiagnosed as lung cancer.

While both pleural mesothelioma and lung cancer can be treated with surgery, pleural mesothelioma is often more aggressive and may require specific supplemental treatment, such as heated chemotherapy.

Adenocarcinoma

Adenocarcinoma is another form of cancer caused by tumors in the glands that line the lungs and other organs.

Mesothelioma behaves in a very similar manner to adenocarcinoma, which makes it possible for even experienced oncologists and surgeons to confuse the two cancers.

Pleural Plaques

People exposed to asbestos may develop pleural plaques, a noncancerous condition in which a chalky substance builds up on the pleura.

Because mesothelioma and pleural plaques are both located in the lung lining and caused by asbestos exposure, it’s possible for doctors to mistake pleural mesothelioma for pleural plaques.

However, the most notable difference is that pleural plaques don’t cause any symptoms and are otherwise harmless. Make sure to get a second opinion if doctors only find pleural plaques and you’re feeling unwell.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis

Like pleural mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma doesn’t have one or two obvious symptoms. Instead, it shares symptoms with many other illnesses, making it easy for medical professionals to mistake it for more common illnesses or types of cancer.

Nonspecific peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain and swelling
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss

Below, learn more about illnesses commonly mistaken for peritoneal mesothelioma.

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): IBS and mesothelioma share symptoms of abdominal pain, bloating, and constipation.
  • Crohn’s disease: Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes pain and inflammation in any part of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
  • Ovarian cancer: Peritoneal mesothelioma can be easily misdiagnosed as ovarian cancer because both conditions often affect women.

Whether you suspect a peritoneal mesothelioma misdiagnosis or have already been diagnosed, it’s important to get a second opinion from an experienced mesothelioma specialist.

Misdiagnosing Mesothelioma Stage

Even if a doctor identifies a patient’s condition as mesothelioma, there can still be a misdiagnosis when it comes to determining the disease stage.

Mesothelioma doctor speaking to an elderly male about their treatment plan

Treating mesothelioma at different stages require different approaches, which means that misdiagnosing mesothelioma stage can be just as harmful as a misdiagnosis in and of itself.

Typically, only patients whose cancer is localized (early-stage) can undergo curative surgery to remove their tumors. Patients with advanced (late-stage) cancer are usually ineligible for surgeries that can improve their life expectancy.

Properly diagnosing mesothelioma stage can help ensure that patients can access the most effective treatments  — including new treatments available in clinical trials.

Find top specialists who can properly diagnose and treat you with our Free Mesothelioma Doctor Match.

Mesothelioma doctor talking with an older couple
Free Mesothelioma Doctor Match

We'll help you connect with a local mesothelioma specialist for personalized treatment.

Find a Doctor Near You

How Is Mesothelioma Misdiagnosed?

Because mesothelioma is so rare, it is not usually the first thing that comes to a doctor’s mind when a patient reports their symptoms.

Here’s how diagnosing mesothelioma can go awry: 

  • When mesothelioma cells are viewed under a microscope, they may resemble other metastatic (advanced) cancer cells. Doctors may also misdiagnose a patient’s mesothelioma cell type in some cases.
  • When pathologists test fluid or tissue samples, they use specialized “stains” to indicate whether cancer is present. However, staining patterns alone can lead to misdiagnosis without considering other features of the tumor and the patient’s medical history.
  • Despite CT scans (computed tomography scans) and X-rays being generally reliable when identifying common cancers, mesothelioma is so rare that a biopsy is often needed to see the full picture.

A tissue biopsy is the best option for ensuring an accurate mesothelioma diagnosis.

How to Avoid a Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis

Getting a correct diagnosis and avoiding misdiagnosis helps doctors tailor a patient’s mesothelioma treatment plan to their cancer, giving them a better chance of survival.

That being said, if you or a loved one may have mesothelioma — or that a current diagnosis is incorrect — it is important to visit a mesothelioma specialist.

Even if you’ve already consulted your primary doctor, if you were previously exposed to asbestos and are displaying mesothelioma symptoms, getting a second opinion from a mesothelioma specialist helps ensure you can access the best treatment options possible.

The Mesothelioma Hope team can help you find top doctors to properly diagnose you, and offer treatments to avoid a misdiagnosis. Learn more in our Free Mesothelioma Guide.

Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis FAQs

Can mesothelioma be misdiagnosed?

Unfortunately, yes. Mesothelioma misdiagnosis is very common.

Nearly 1 in 4 pleural mesothelioma patients are misdiagnosed at first, according to a report from the Open Epidemiology Journal.

More broadly, the American Cancer Society Journals found that 14% of mesothelioma cases are misdiagnosed in countries with top-notch health care. That rate increases to 50% in countries that don’t have the best health care available.

What can mimic mesothelioma?

Many health problems can mimic mesothelioma.

Pleural mesothelioma patients could be misdiagnosed with COPD, bronchitis, or lung cancer. These conditions share symptoms like chest pain and a recurring cough.

Peritoneal mesothelioma shares abdominal-related symptoms like swelling and constipation with irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and other health issues.

Finally, other rare cancers like pulmonary carcinoma could be mistaken for mesothelioma if doctors aren’t careful.

What should I do if I might have been misdiagnosed?

See a doctor immediately if you believe you’ve been misdiagnosed.

An incorrect diagnosis gives the cancer more time to spread through your body and delays your treatment. Without treatment, mesothelioma can be fatal in just a few months.

Reviewed by:Dr. Assuntina Sacco

Board-Certified Oncologist

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Assuntina Sacco, MD is an Associate Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Moores Cancer Center, where she also serves as the Medical Director of Infusion Services. She is a board-certified medical oncologist trained to treat all solid tumor types, with the use of chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, and clinical trials.

Dr. Assuntina Sacco is an independently paid medical reviewer.

  • Board-Certified Oncologist
  • Associate Professor at UC San Diego
  • Published Medical Author
Written by:

Lead Editor

Laura Wright is a journalist and content strategist with more than 14 years of professional experience. She attended college at the University of Florida, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2008. Her writing has been featured in The Gainesville Sun and other regional publications throughout Florida.

4 References
  1. Carbone, M., et al. (2019, July 8). Mesothelioma: Scientific clues for prevention, diagnosis, and therapy. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from https://acsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.3322/caac.21572

  2. Frontiers in Genetics. (n.d.). Tumors that mimic asbestos-related mesothelioma: time to consider a genetics-based tumor registry? Retrieved December 2, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4038924/

  3. Kopylev, L., Sullivan, P., & Et al. (n.d.). Monte Carlo Analysis of Impact of Underascertainment of Mesothelioma Cases on Underestimation of Risk. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from https://benthamopen.com/contents/pdf/TOEPIJ/TOEPIJ-4-45.pdf

  4. Wang, L., Zhang, J., Chen, X., Liang, M., Li, S., Zhou, W., & Cao, J. (2021, November 12). Pulmonary sarcomatoid carcinoma mimicking pleural mesothelioma: A case report. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8589231/

Speak to a Patient Advocate About Your Options

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, there is hope. Contact us to learn more about mesothelioma and your treatment options.

  • Latest treatment information
  • Financial assistance for treatment
  • VA benefits help

Submit your information and a Patient Advocate will call you right back!

Complete the Form to Speak to a Patient Advocate