The role of cytologic evaluation of pleural fluid in the diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma

Chest. 1997 Jan;111(1):106-9. doi: 10.1378/chest.111.1.106.


Study objective: Treatment of malignant mesothelioma (MM) at an early stage results in increased survival. Cytologic examination of pleural effusions is one of the first diagnostic techniques attempted in these patients. The objective of this study was to define the role of cytologic examination of pleural fluid in facilitating early diagnosis.

Design: The medical records and cytologic slides of patients with pleural MM were reviewed.

Setting: Medical records were reviewed from two institutions: a large general hospital and a cancer hospital.

Patients: Twenty-nine patients ranging in age from 32 to 81 years (mean, 59 years) met the study criteria.

Interventions: All patients had at least one cytologic pleural fluid examination.

Measurements and results: The median time from initial symptoms to the diagnosis of MM was 8 weeks for all patients. For patients with a positive or suspicious cytologic result, the median was 4 weeks, and in those with a negative cytologic result, it was 12 weeks. The overall sensitivity of cytologic examination for the diagnosis of MM was 32%. Cytogenetic analysis of pleural fluid had a sensitivity of 56%, and was positive in 1 case in which results of cytologic examination were negative. Patients in whom the time from presentation to diagnosis was greater than 1 year all had negative cytologic results followed by long periods without further workup, despite a history of exposure to asbestos.

Conclusions: A positive or suspicious cytologic result was associated with a decreased median time to diagnosis. Unfortunately, the sensitivity of cytologic examination for a diagnosis of MM was only 32%. Until better diagnostic techniques are developed, we recommend immediate pleural biopsy in patients in whom MM is suspected and cytologic evaluation of pleural fluid gives negative results.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Chromosome Aberrations
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mesothelioma / pathology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Pleural Effusion / pathology*
  • Pleural Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sensitivity and Specificity