Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis

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

Misdiagnosis of mesothelioma is common because it is known for being difficult to diagnose. Unfortunately, this misdiagnosis can jeopardize a patient’s survival and quality of life.

If you believe you were misdiagnosed, this is what you need to know about mesothelioma misdiagnosis:

  • All forms of mesothelioma can be misdiagnosed for other conditions or cancers
  • Early mesothelioma symptoms can be mistaken for many conditions because they are non-specific
  • Some types of mesothelioma cells can look like other, far more common cancer cells
  • A misdiagnosis usually occurs because a physician is not familiar with this rare type of cancer
  • 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 Misdiagnosis?

Misdiagnosis is when a doctor diagnoses a patient with one condition only to later discover that they’ve had a different condition all along.

The majority of doctors do their absolute best to accurately diagnose and treat their patients, but there are cases where this doesn’t happen.

Discovering that you have been misdiagnosed can be frustrating and you may feel like you have lost time fighting your disease.

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, a misdiagnosis with mesothelioma is common because of its rarity. When doctors do eventually identify the correct condition, it puts patients on the right track to undergo effective and potentially life-saving treatments.

Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis Factors

Patients who have been misdiagnosed or suspect they were misdiagnosed should understand factors that lead to misdiagnosis.

During the diagnostic process, doctors take different factors into account that get pieced together to form a diagnosis. If any of those factors is incomplete or inaccurate, or a separate factor was missed altogether, it can lead to misdiagnosis.

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

  • Inexperienced Medical Team: The main reason mesothelioma misdiagnosis occurs is a lack of experience in the medical team diagnosing the condition. Most doctors have never dealt with mesothelioma and, therefore, cannot correctly identify the condition. Even doctors that have seen one or two cases of mesothelioma do not have enough experience to identify and treat this very complex cancer.
  • Missed Information: Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma. Doctors may not consider mesothelioma if they do not know their patient’s past history of asbestos exposure.
  • Each Case is Unique: Every case of mesothelioma is unique. This means that even if you do see a doctor who has experience with mesothelioma, they still may not be able to correctly identify your unique condition. 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 could mistake mesothelioma cells for other cancer cells that appear and act in a similar way. Even an experienced pathologist can diagnose your condition as a different type of cancer, such as adenocarcinoma.
  • Incomplete Biopsies: Doctors use histology samples of cells to determine the type of cancer is present. If not enough sample tissue is collected during a biopsy, it can produce incomplete results. Additionally, if doctors rely solely on fluid samples, it can also lead to 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 20-50 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

Mesothelioma cancer cells mimic more common types of cancer. This similarity can sometimes cause oncologists to misdiagnose mesothelioma patients with other types of cancer such as lung, ovarian, breast, or lymphoma.

Knowing that a patient has cancer is not enough for treatment. Every type of cancer requires a specialized treatment plan, and it’s no different when treating mesothelioma.

Misdiagnosing the Stage

A mesothelioma diagnosis can also be misdiagnosed with the wrong stage of the disease.

Doctors that are unfamiliar with treating mesothelioma could tell patients their disease is more advanced than it actually is, which can eliminate important surgical options. Patients can also be given an optimistic diagnosis that later turns out to be a poor prognosis.

When this happens, patients are given treatment options like clinical trials that offer new therapies not yet available to the public.

Diagnosis of the right type and stage of cancer is critical to finding the most effective treatment plan.

Common Misdiagnoses by Mesothelioma Location

Avoiding a mesothelioma misdiagnosis is not always possible. The more information you know about the complexity of mesothelioma, the better prepared you can be to take charge of your health and treatment.

Common conditions that are diagnosed when there is a mesothelioma misdiagnosis include the following:

Pleural Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis

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

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis

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

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.

Doctors and pathologists familiar with mesothelioma cell types work together to identify mesothelioma and correctly stage the disease. By working with a mesothelioma specialist, you can get the correct information you need about your condition after a misdiagnosis.

Seeking a second opinion from a specialist is vital so you can be placed on the most effective treatment plan for your unique condition.

Contact Mesothelioma Hope for more information about what to do next if you’ve experienced a mesothelioma misdiagnosis. Our Patient Advocates are here to support you and answer all your questions about the mesothelioma diagnosis process.

Mesothelioma Support Team

Mesothelioma Hope was founded by a team of advocates to educate people about this aggressive form of cancer. Mesothelioma affects thousands of people each year. We help give hope to those impacted by mesothelioma.

View 2 References
  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.

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