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When are respiratory troubles a sign of mesothelioma?

It can be difficult for doctors to diagnose mesothelioma. Its symptoms often resemble those of other, more common respiratory diseases. So, how can you know if you have mesothelioma, the flu or something else?

The truth is that there's no easy answer. Certainly, since asbestos exposure is the leading cause of mesothelioma, your doctor may ask about your exposure to asbestos. But the work doctors do to identify mesothelioma is often done in stages.

More than one type of mesothelioma

As noted by the National Organization for Rare Disorders, there's more than one type of mesothelioma. Mesothelioma refers to a cancer of the mesothelium, a membrane that protects different internal organs. The type of mesothelioma--and the symptoms you might experience--vary with the organ the affected membrane is protecting.

When cancer infects the membrane around the lung, that's pleural mesothelioma. It's the most common form, affecting nearly 85% of all mesothelioma victims, and its symptoms resemble those of many respiratory diseases. As the American Lung Association notes, they include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Persistent coughing
  • Pain in your chest or lower back
  • Trouble swallowing

General symptoms, regardless of the location of cancer, also tend to include:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite

As you can see, these symptoms resemble those of an achy flu, as well as many other diseases. This makes diagnosing mesothelioma a bit tricky, even though an early diagnosis may be key to the best possible recovery.

Diagnosing mesothelioma

As both the National Organization for Rare Disorders and American Lung Association note, doctors should ask about your work history if they suspect mesothelioma. Since the disease results almost exclusively from asbestos exposure, your doctor will want to know if you worked in a high-risk job.

Along with this information, your doctor will want to conduct a physical exam. They will also likely:

  • Take some x-rays
  • Test your blood
  • Conduct other tests of your lungs

If the tests reveal a tumor, your doctor will perform a biopsy to verify whether it's mesothelioma. If it is, the final step is to figure out how far the cancer may have spread. Here, your doctor may request a positron emission tomography (PET) scan or biopsies of different lymph nodes--or both.

You can help

It's hard for doctors to diagnose mesothelioma, but you can help. If you suspect you may have the disease, you want to help. The earlier you can catch and treat it, the better your chance for recovery.

While you don't want to overreact to every little cough, you do want to pay attention to your health. If you have symptoms, you can't otherwise explain--and you may have a history of asbestos exposure--you can make sure your doctor is aware of your risk. In some cases, your cough and shortness of breath may pass in a few days. In other cases, they could be the first signs of a deadly disease.

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