How to establish accurate diagnosis of asbestos-related diseases

By Treven Pyles

Posted on April 21st, 2017

The symptoms of asbestos diseases, chest pain and coughing, are also symptoms of other common diseases. This makes diagnosis hard to pinpoint. A misdiagnosis may not only prevent you from getting effective treatment but also hinder you from recovering the financial compensation you deserve.

The low prevalence of asbestos-related diseases has led to a very concerning issue over the years - a high rate of misdiagnosis. According to the National Cancer Institute, up to 20% of people who have been heavily exposed to asbestos in the past will develop a disease. Nevertheless, frequently, asbestos victims are initially misdiagnosed. In addition to the rare nature of asbestos-related diseases, there are other factors that contribute to the alarming rate of misdiagnosis. The similarity between asbestos-related diseases and less severe conditions such as pneumonia or bronchitis in terms of symptoms, as well as their complexity, can also mislead medical professionals.

A variety of diagnostic tests might be needed to help identify diagnosis

Although mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis are quite common among people with a history of asbestos exposure, these diseases are not very well-known by most medical professionals. There are over 200,000 new lung cancer cases every year in the U.S., out of which only 4,800 occur as a consequence of asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma is also a rare disease, representing approximately 0.3% of all cancer diagnoses. Thus, it is probably not surprising that the majority of oncologists do not have the chance to examine patients suffering from these illnesses very often.

To make sure your health will be properly evaluated, we highly advise you to choose a specialist in asbestos-related diseases, preferably with relevant practical experience. Because they focus exclusively on the diagnostic and treatment of these illnesses, your chances of being misdiagnosed will be very slim.

Generally, physicians will first ask you about your work history. It is recommended to share everything you can remember about your asbestos exposure with them, as this will give them an idea about how severe your condition might be. Subsequently, after a standard physical examination, your doctor will refer you to a series of other specialists, such as:

  • Pulmonologists
  • Radiologists
  • Surgical oncologists
  • B-readers
  • Thoracic surgeons
  • Pathologists

Because asbestos-related diseases are complex and resemble other pulmonary disorders, multiple tests are employed to ensure you will receive an accurate diagnosis, hence the number of additional specialists who are going to be involved in your examination. The following diagnostic procedures are typically used to evaluate patients with a history of asbestos exposure. We strongly encourage you to visit a specialist as soon as possible, regardless of whether you experience symptoms or not, as failing to receive a correct diagnosis can have devastating consequences for your health.

Chest X-rays

While a chest X-ray cannot be used to determine whether you have asbestos fibers in your lungs, it will provide basic information about the condition of your organs. Pleural plaques and pleural effusion, which often accompany mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer, can easily be seen on X-rays. This diagnostic method can also detect asbestosis, as the affected portion of your lungs will appear white on a chest X-ray. After you undergo this test, the images will be analyzed by a radiologist or by a B-reader. For asbestos-related diseases, the expertise of a B-reader might be more valuable, as they specialize in examining the radiographs of people who suffer from occupational pulmonary diseases.

Computed tomography (CT) scans

Computed tomography is an extremely useful diagnostic tool for people with a history of asbestos exposure. Unlike X-rays, a CT scan will provide very complex and detailed images of your lungs and can detect asbestos-related diseases in their incipient phases. Moreover, a CT scan might prove to be life-saving for patients whose chest X-rays are vague or do not show any abnormalities, as computed tomography can reveal the early onset of mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis. Although asbestos fibers are not visible on the images, a CT scan will help your doctor timely detect the signs of disease.

Pulmonary function tests

These tests are used to determine whether the function of your lungs is impaired and if it is, to what extent. When you have an asbestos-related disease, the function of your lungs will inevitably be affected and the results of pulmonary function tests will help your physician assess the severity of your condition. There are numerous pulmonary function tests, each evaluating a certain aspect of how well your lungs are working. Some of the most common are:

  • Pulse oximetry, which determines the oxygen levels in your blood
  • Lung volume tests employed to measure how much air you can hold in your lungs
  • Spirometry, which estimates the size of your lungs and evaluates the rate of airflow
  • Lung diffusion capacity, a test used to measure how much oxygen your blood receives from the air you breathe
  • Arterial blood gas tests, which evaluate the concentration of various gases in your blood, including oxygen and carbon dioxide

Biopsies

There are two types of biopsies: nonsurgical and surgical. A non-surgical approach might be recommended to patients with pleural effusion, as it involves collecting a sample of fluid from the lungs, which will subsequently be examined by a cytologist for the presence of cancer cells. However, this is not a very reliable method of detecting mesothelioma or asbestos-related lung cancer.

On the other hand, surgical biopsies are the most accurate diagnostic methods which can also confirm the presence of asbestos fibers in the lungs. During a surgical biopsy, one or multiple small samples of tissue will be collected from your lungs and will then be thoroughly examined by a pathologist. Additionally, if malignant cells are discovered, the pathologist will be able to properly identify them and you will be assigned a precise diagnosis. Surgical biopsies are of many types, depending on how they are performed.

When performing an endoscopic procedure, a doctor inserts a tube-like device into the patient's body so they can examine the organs. The endoscope is a tube that has a light and camera attached to its end. The most common endoscopies include:

  • Thoracoscopy - a minimally invasive procedure during which a thin, flexible tube will be inserted into your chest cavity to allow the surgeon to collect tissue samples
  • Bronchoscopy - a thin, flexible tube will be inserted through your nose or mouth to reach your lungs
  • Mediastinoscopy - this is another minimally invasive type of biopsy which involves the insertion of the tube through a small incision in your neck or in the left side of your chest

An ectomy, for example, a thoracotomy, is a procedure more invasive than the endoscopy and it involves the collection of tissue samples and the direct examination of lungs through a wide incision across the chest.

Tests to Accurately Diagnose Asbestos-Related Diseases

  • Lung cancer. The most accurate methods used by medical professionals to diagnose asbestos lung include: chest X-ray, CT scan, MRI and PET scan, sputum cytology, biopsy.
  • Bronchial cancer. Diagnosing bronchial cancer requires the following tests: a chest X-ray, a PET scan, a lung biopsy, a liquid biopsy.
  • Mesothelioma. To establish the diagnosis, doctors often do imaging studies that may include X-rays of your chest and abdomen, CT/PET scans, MRI scans. If doctors suspect mesothelioma, they will schedule a biopsy. They may recommend a thoracoscopy or video-assisted thoracoscopy (VAT) or a peritoneoscopy. If the biopsy reveals mesothelioma, further studies are then done to determine how advanced the cancer is.
  • Esophageal cancer. The tests used to diagnose esophageal cancer are often ordered for people who have difficulty swallowing, a persistent cough, or risk factors for the disease and may include: a barium swallow, endoscopy, endoscopic ultrasound. Other procedures and imaging tests such as CT, PET, and bronchoscopy can help determine the stage of the disease which is important for choosing the best treatment options.
  • Throat cancer. First, the doctor will review your health history to determine whether you may be at risk for throat cancer. To get a better view of the inside of the throat, an ENT doctor may recommend having a laryngoscopy during which a sample of tissue may be taken if any suspicious areas are discovered.
  • Colorectal cancer. To confirm and define the extent of colon cancer a diagnostic colonoscopy, biopsy, and imaging tests are needed. The imaging tests often used include chest X-ray, CT scan, MRI and PET scan.
  • Gastrointestinal cancer. The methods of diagnosing gastrointestinal cancer include: lab tests, imaging tests, biopsies and endoscopy.

Receiving a correct diagnosis is vital for your prognosis and for recovering the financial compensation you deserve

To have a viable claim for compensation, an individual must have an asbestos-related disease that causes, or contributes to an impairment, such as respiratory impairments, chest pains, fatigue, and difficulty with mobility. If you were exposed to asbestos in the workplace, there is a considerable chance your health will be affected at some point in the future due to the asbestos fibers you have inhaled. When you decide to file a personal injury claim, it's important to document your work and medical history. In the absence of a clear diagnosis, you may not be able to file a successful claim for compensation with asbestos trust funds.

It is common to see two situations that are similar on the surface result in vastly different outcomes. This often leads to the inevitable question "why did that person get more compensation?" Differences in the patient's medical history, degree of impairment, and prognosis may have a significant impact on the outcome of an asbestos claim and the amount of compensation you will receive.

If you have been diagnosed with asbestosis, mesothelioma or lung cancer, or another asbestos disease, you are eligible for financial compensation from asbestos trust funds. Filing a claim will help not only hold the wrongdoers responsible for their careless actions but also help you cover your medical expenses. Do not hesitate to contact Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. as soon as possible. Unfortunately, time is limited when it comes to asbestos claims. Due to the statute of limitations, you have between one and three years to file an asbestos claim if you decide to get compensation from asbestos trust funds.