Can you screen for malignant mesothelioma?

One of the difficulties in diagnosing malignant pleural mesothelioma is the long time between exposure to asbestos and the beginning of symptoms. The average incubation period for malignant pleural mesothelioma is 20-50 years. Are there any tests that can screen for malignant mesothelioma?

Screening is testing for a disease when there are no symptoms. The reason to screen people is that early detection usually results in better treatment options and improved success in treatment. Screening can help detect cancers earlier and start treatment when the disease is in an earlier stage. These screenings can take the form of blood tests, procedures, or x-rays, depending on the disease. Examples of different screening tests for cancers are a mammogram for breast cancer, colonoscopy for colon cancer, or a blood test for prostate cancer. Malignant mesothelioma – whether it is pleural or peritoneal – is usually diagnosed after other diseases have been ruled out.

In the past few years there has been the development of screening for lung cancer with a low dose CT scan. People that have high risk factors for lung cancer are screened using a cat scan. The yearly screening CT scan is recommended for patients that have a history of heavy smoking, who have smoked now or quit within the past 15 years and are between the ages of 55 and 80 years old.

Researchers in Toronto have conducted a clinical trial screening both people exposed to asbestos 20 years prior and people with known high risks for lung cancer, with a low dose CT scan. These are the same scans that have been used for detecting early lung cancer. Unfortunately, the researchers did not find the low dose scans to be a benefit in screening for malignant pleural mesothelioma. 

Screening for cancer is important. Although this study did not prove successful, there are researchers continuing with this important work. Helping to develop a screening tool to detect malignant pleural mesothelioma will hopefully allow people to start treatment earlier.

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