Asbestos Cancer Diagnosis

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When the symptoms first appear in asbestos cancer, they are so subtle that a person might be tempted to disregard them as signs of a different illness or being too minor to bother reporting. It is easy to ignore fatigue and sore muscles as possibly being activity related, or to think of shortness of breath, coughing, hoarseness, or difficulty swallowing as part of a cold. Realistically, however, someone with a history of asbestos exposure needs to be aware of these symptoms and bring them to the attention of their physician as soon as possible. Getting prompt medical attention at the onset of asbestos cancer provides the best options for survival.

During the first visit, the healthcare provider will ask the patient for details about their experience with asbestos. Knowing the situation (location of exposure and whether it was occupational or environmental), quantity of asbestos exposed to, and duration of the exposure will help to determine the risk factor for the different types of asbestos cancer, like mesothelioma, asbestosis, or lung cancer.

After an exam to look for what areas might be affected, the physician will order diagnostic testing such as chest x-rays, a CT scan, or an MRI, drawing of fluids if they are present in the chest or abdomen, and possibly a tissue sample. These tests are sent to a radiologist or laboratory for analysis and the results then sent back to the physician.

If cancer is determined to be present, the next step may be additional testing to determine if, in fact, it is asbestos related. This usually involves chemical analysis of the cancer cells and the use of high-powered technology to visually confirm the presence of mesothelioma. The cells of asbestos cancer look different than the cells of lung cancer caused by smoking, for instance. Also, certain chemicals will be present with mesothelioma that will not be present in other types of cancer cells.

In addition to the symptoms presented by the patient, studies of x-rays, and CT and MRI scans will provide evidence of how far the cancer may have spread. If the cancer has been identified as pleural mesothelioma in the chest the doctor will use one of two professionally developed systems that weigh what each test result or symptom means. One is the Butchart Staging System and the other is the newer TNM Staging System. Differences between the two systems are minor and both use a rating scale based on Roman Numerals I, IV, with IV being the most advanced stage. Other types of mesothelioma detection use a more common staging scale than these two specially developed systems.

While it will be a nerve-racking and oftentimes frightening process for the patient, accurately identifying the stage of the cancer's progression along with evaluating the patient's general health and other physical attributes will allow the treating physician to determine the best options for treatment. The team of healthcare professionals will then be able to make a well-informed prognosis.

When treatment is determined, the three common options are surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. Surgery is the most effective method, but it's also the most difficult. With most mesothelioma patients being older, the risk for surgery increases, and because the cancer can be widespread, the area is not always operable. Chemotherapy is administered sometimes in conjunction with surgery to chemically attack the cancerous cells. Lastly, radiation therapy is used to target and break down areas of greater spread, but often has an adverse affect on healthy cells as well.

As it stands, there is no cure for mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases.


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