A national screening programme for the early detection of mesothelioma and asbestos-related cancers could help extend the life expectancy of patients, say families of victims diagnosed with the fatal disease. Investment in standard X-ray or blood tests could be vital in catching the presence of asbestosis symptoms, according to Scotland charity, Clydeside Action on Asbestos, at their recent annual general meeting.

In the test procedures used by specialists to confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis, an X-ray is often the first step before further detailed MRI or CT scans are carried out. The use of chemotherapy drugs can then help to reduce the size of the tumour and delay further cancer growth. In some cases, an average survival rate of around two to six months could be increased beyond one year, possibly up to two years or beyond.

Mesothelioma rate to continue for at least another twenty five years

The continuing high mortality rate from mesothelioma and asbestos-related cancers is a current cause for concern among many charity support groups as well as MPs and specialist asbestosis lawyers.

The annual rate of mesothelioma deaths in the UK, which is now at around 2,120 is expected to continue for at least another twenty five years, according to the Department of Works and Pensions (DWP). Figures recently released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have also revised up their estimated mortality rate caused by asbestosis diseases from 4,000 to 5,000 deaths each year.

However, a Scottish government spokesman said that “screening programmes are only introduced after a detailed assessment of clinical and cost effectiveness and public health benefit… the National Screening Committee has not considered screening for asbestos exposure.”

A first step to making a positive mesothelioma diagnosis

The UK National Screening Committee, which was founded in 1996, has been part of Public Health England since April 2013. One of the tasks of the committee is to draw up a list of policies on the various types of screening available. In each case, assessments are made in balancing the risks against the benefits, where screening should be provided for everyone or just a few, and where screening is not recommended. Currently, the three cancer screening programmes delivered by the NHS England are for breast, cervical and bowel cancers.

An X-ray collects a basic, two-dimensional image of dense areas in the body. In a first step to making a positive mesothelioma diagnosis, X-rays help to determine if there is any abnormal presence in the areas of the lungs, abdomen, or heart. X-rays of the chest or abdomen can also show fluid build-up around the organs, which can also indicate the presence of mesothelioma.

If an unusual mass shows up on a X-ray image, the next step could be to undergo a MRI scan, which is highly detailed 3D image, and / or a PET-CT scan to identify the stage a cancer has reached. A final test is often a biopsy, which removes a fluid or a small tissue sample from a tumour for analysis under a microscope to identify cell type.

Half of mesothelioma patients could live for up to two or more years

The development of imaging technology means it is now possible for around a half of mesothelioma patients to live for up to two or more years. The use of a routine X-ray can help doctors to identify a possible cancer growth before ordering further detailed image scanning. A simple blood test can measure the levels of a particular cell protein to identify known differences in mesothelioma patients.

It has been shown that patient treatment, quality of life and survival rate can all be improved by catching mesothelioma at an early stage. Survival rates continue to be poor compared to other cancers. It is still often the case that mesothelioma is only diagnosed at a late stage when the spread of malignant tumours has spread to other organ tissues and expected survival is less than six months.