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Lung Cancer Often Misdiagnosed as Pneumonia Urges Requests for Second Medical Opinions

By Shaniqua Williams

Posted on March 28th, 2019

Often, people with recurrent bouts of pneumonia tend to have unidentified lung cancer that can progress to advanced stages without appropriate treatment. Persistent chest infections can be signs of something more serious than pneumonia, and unfortunately, it may sometimes take a few months for the doctors to diagnose properly.

Lung cancer is attributed to various external factors including exposure to asbestos, radon gas, and cigarette smoking. However, asbestos-related lung cancer is specifically caused by the asbestos fibers embedded in the lungs and scarring the lungs for 10-20 years after the exposure occurred. Often times, asbestos-caused lung cancer is misdiagnosed because its symptoms are similar to conditions such as pneumonia, asthma, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

A former client, underground coal mine worker whose asbestos-related lung cancer was misdiagnosed and treated as pneumonia for a couple of months, says "People who have been working around asbestos need to be aware of it and should seek a second opinion as early as possible if they have a recurring cough, heavy breathing and keep getting diagnosed with pneumonia or bronchitis."

After his retirement, this gentleman had to get admitted to the hospital several times a year because of recurrent pneumonia. He worked as an underground coal miner between 1979-1995, and he also worked as an auto mechanic at times during this period. His first set of X-rays revealed a possible calcification of the bronchial node, his family physician wanted to keep it under observation. He started developing severe pneumonia multiple times a few years later and was also hospitalized a couple of times. His doctors asked him several times if he was a smoker, although he has never smoked a cigarette in his life."From looking at your chest X-ray your lungs look like that of 90-year old smokers who smoked 4 packs/day.", his doctor stated during an exam. Later on that year he was diagnosed with colon cancer, duodenum cancer, and stomach cancer, as the asbestos fibers traveling through the body tend to attack the weakest organs and they can create these types of cancers as well. If our client could have avoided his misdiagnosis and would have been diagnosed earlier, he would have had a higher chance for better treatments.

Anyone who worked in an industrial setting should get tested regardless of how minor their lung-related symptoms might be; early diagnosis ensures effective treatments and better prognosis.

When Is Lung Cancer Misdiagnosed?

There are high chances of a misdiagnosis especially during the early stages as both lung cancer and pneumonia affect the lungs and have several overlapping symptoms. Cough, the presence of phlegm, shortness of breath, wheezing, stabbing chest pain, tiredness, and loss of appetite are the overlapping symptoms whereas fever is associated only with pneumonia. Persistent chest infections are signs of something more serious than pneumonia, sadly this takes a few months for the doctors to diagnose properly. Often times, people with recurrent bouts of pneumonia tend to have unidentified lung cancer that progresses without appropriate treatment until it reaches an advanced stage.

Early-stage lung cancer shows symptoms that are not very specific and just indicate the inability of the lungs to perform normally. It takes several years for the characteristic symptoms of lung cancer such as coughing up blood, fatigue, and unexplained weight loss to develop. Moreover, X-rays of the chest cannot be relied upon to detect early-stage lung cancer. These are the most common reasons for the initial stage of lung cancer to be mistaken for pneumonia. However, if you have worked in an industrial setting and regardless of whether your chest X-rays show asbestos fibers or not, we specifically evaluate your chest X-rays to help you determine the amount of asbestos fibers in your lungs and the degree of scarring those fibers have produced.

According to a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, lung cancer is one among the top three most commonly misdiagnosed cancers. Recent guidelines by the American Society of Clinical Oncologists suggest that people at high risk of developing lung cancer need to undergo annual screening with the use of low-dose computed tomography (LDCT). People with a history of asbestos exposure need to undergo screening tests to facilitate early detection of lung cancer and timely treatment.

Second Opinions after Recurrent Pneumonia

If you have experienced recurrent episodes of pneumonia and had been previously exposed to asbestos fibers while working in an industrial setting, we recommend you to seek a second opinion from a doctor specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of asbestos-related diseases to avoid misdiagnosis. Misdiagnosis leads to incorrect treatment, delayed treatment, and unfavorable prognosis, which is why any individual who has been exposed to asbestos in the past and has developed new lung-related problems should get their diagnosis confirmed from a specialist doctor. This is referred to as a second medical opinion and is essential to identify your condition properly and receive appropriate treatment at the right time. Generally, the patients in an early stage of cancer receive more aggressive treatment, which has greater chances of extending life expectancy. Therefore, we recommend people with a history of exposure to asbestos to remain attentive to warning signs of asbestos-related diseases and take immediate action if the signs tend to persist even after a few weeks.