Correct diagnosis distinguishing between the different types of asbestos-related disease, including mesothelioma, asbestosis, cancer and asbestos cancer has not been without an element of confusion over the years.

For much of the twentieth century asbestos was widely used as a main insulating and fire–retardant material in engineering, manufacturing and construction. The lack of asbestos awareness to the fatal health risks thousands of workers were exposed to daily has left a legacy which continues in the number of mesothelioma compensation claims still being made by an asbestosis lawyer on behalf of victims or their families to this day.

Latency periods of between 15 to 50 years between initial exposure and first asbestosis symptoms appearing mean around 4,000 deaths are currently recorded each year, and figures are expected to reach 59,000 by 2050.

Amongst the various deadly asbestos diseases, cancer of the lung tissue itself is also known to be caused by asbestos exposure. However, correctly diagnosing any asbestos-related disease presents a challenge as symptoms develop gradually, are non-specific, and often closely resemble other conditions or diseases.

Determining asbestos as the cause of a cancer requires a painstaking process of elimination, even when it is known that asbestos exposure had originally occurred or the patient has a history of asbestosis, which leads to developing asbestos cancer in around 1 out of 7 cases.

The investigation begins with taking a thorough and accurate medical history of the patient, documenting medical conditions, work history, and family medical history, plus any cultural and environmental factors. This is followed by a general examination and possible laboratory tests.

Where a lung condition is suspected, a pulmonary function test is taken for lungs and breathing and a chest x-ray to detect for lung abnormalities, including pleural thickening (scarring) and effusions (excessive liquid). Once the presence of any lung abnormalities is established, further tests may be required to determine the presence of asbestos lung cancer, how far it has progressed, and any possible asbestosis treatments.

Beginning with an analyses of the patient’s phlegm to detect cancer cells in their earliest stages, a series of scans may be made.

A CT scan or CAT scan is an x-ray which produces a three-dimensional, cross-sectional image and an accurate assessment of the size of the abnormality and tissue density.

A PET scans helps identify tumours where lung cancer is suspected although it cannot distinguish between malignant and benign tumours.

Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to build an image of the limits to a tumour or other abnormality and is most often used in conjunction with other procedures, which physically remove and analyse abnormal tissue or tumours.

These procedures involve either a Needle Biopsy using fine syringe needles to collect fluid samples or a core needle biopsy, which yields a cylinder of tissue for examination. Alternatively, a vacuum-assisted biopsy will examine tissue from more than one location.

Following a needle or endoscopic biopsies, which involve a thin, flexible tube passed through the mouth or through small incisions in the chest to show the presence of cancer cells, a last step in final diagnosis will be a surgical biopsy.

Asbestos lung cancer cannot be diagnosed without the information provided by a biopsy and analysis of the tissue affected to conclusively determine if cancer is present, how far it has progressed, and evaluating treatment options.