Mesothelioma is a difficult disease to diagnose. Even though it’s a rare type of cancer, it shares many symptoms with other conditions.
The only way doctors can conclusively diagnose mesothelioma tumors is to perform a tissue biopsy and have a pathologist examine the sample under a microscope.
It's important for veterans to understand what biopsies are and the various methods of conducting them. By knowing what to expect during mesothelioma biopsies, veterans can feel more in control of their own health care.
What Is a Pleural Mesothelioma Biopsy?
A pleural mesothelioma biopsy happens when doctors remove parts of the mesothelioma tumor and test it to conclude whether a patient has mesothelioma and what type.
During a biopsy, a surgeon will remove tissue samples from tumors using a special needle, endoscope, or surgical incision. The samples are sent to a lab where they are frozen, sliced into thin sections, dyed, and examined under a microscope.
By looking at the cell size, shape and arrangement, the technicians can determine what type of cancer it is. The samples also help the technicians learn what mesothelioma cell type you have.
The most common cell types are:
While biopsies help doctors conclusively diagnose mesothelioma, they do have limitations. For example, biopsies don’t tell doctors how far the cancer has spread (metastasized). Imaging tests, like CT scans and MRIs, determine that.
Furthermore, because mesothelioma shares symptoms with other diseases, biopsies are also not the only diagnostic process that patients undergo. Many procedures lead up to this step, such as blood work and x-rays.
Types of Pleural Mesothelioma Biopsies
There are three different types of biopsies:
Each approach has its own benefits and risks.
1. Needle Biopsies
Needle biopsies are the least invasive biopsy. CT scans or other imaging tests are used to help the doctor insert a needle into the tumor and take a sample out.
A needle biopsy is done with just numbing medicine. It doesn’t require an overnight stay, and the doctors don’t need to make a surgical incision.
However, because the needle is small, the sample will also be small. This means that doctors may need to insert the needle more than once to get a larger sample.
Additionally, if the result comes back inconclusive, the doctor may need to perform a different type of biopsy to get an accurate diagnosis.
There is also a small risk that the needle might puncture the lung. This could cause a buildup of air between the lung and chest wall.
If only a small amount of air builds up, it’s not a problem. It won't cause any symptoms, and it will most likely go away on its own.
However, if there’s a lot of air, it could cause part of the lung to collapse.
2. Endoscopic Biopsies
In an endoscopic biopsy, the doctor inserts a thin, tube-like instrument called an endoscope into the body. Then, once the tube reaches the tumor, the doctor can put small tools through the endoscope to remove tissue samples.
With this procedure, doctors don't need to use CT scans or MRIs to locate the tumor because the endoscope is equipped with a camera and light.
Patients will usually be put under general anesthesia — into a deep sleep — while they are undergoing an endoscopic biopsy.
3. Surgical Biopsies
It isn't always possible for doctors to make a diagnosis based on the sample they obtained via needle or endoscope. In these cases, a surgeon will need to cut open the chest to remove a piece of the tumor — or sometimes the entire tumor — to get enough tissue for a diagnosis.
During a surgical biopsy, the patient may either receive a local anesthetic to numb the incision area or be put into a deep sleep. There is also a chance that the patient will need to stay in the hospital for observation.
Diagnosing Pleural Mesothelioma in Veterans
If you are a veteran who served in the United States military and you have symptoms of mesothelioma, it’s vital to get screened by your doctor.
Veternas must also see a mesothelioma specialist in order to get an accurate diagnosis from a mesothelioma biopsy. Without the right diagnosis, you won't receive the proper treatment that could potentially extend your life expectancy.
Contact the Mesothelioma Veterans Center to learn about filing a claim for mesothelioma benefits and other legal options to get the compensation you need to access top mesothelioma specialists and life-extending treatments.