Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer

Exposure to asbestos generally causes two major types of cancer: mesothelioma and lung cancer. Both cancers affect the lungs and chest by causing pain and reducing lung function.

Top 5 Ranking States for Lung Cancer & Mesothelioma Deaths

Death rates for mesothelioma and lung cancer tend to correlate with each other. The five states with the most mesothelioma deaths also have the most lung cancer deaths.

Each disease can take decades to develop yet only months to spread to distant organs. And they have similar diagnostic procedures and treatment techniques.

In addition, lung cancer and mesothelioma have overlapping symptoms. They both commonly cause chest pain, coughing, difficulty breathing, fatigue and weight loss. If a patient has these symptoms along with a history of asbestos exposure and/or a history of smoking, doctors should immediately suspect lung cancer or mesothelioma.

But despite having a number of similarities, these cancers differ in physical characteristics and non-asbestos risk factors.

Free Mesothelioma Packet

Get a Free Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer Guide

Free information, books, wristbands and more for patients and caregivers.

Get Your Free Guide Get Your Free Lung Cancer Guide
Free Mesothelioma Packet

Differences in Development Between the Two Cancers

While mesothelioma and lung cancer can develop after exposure to asbestos, each occurs in different areas of the body. Lung cancer develops in the lung itself, while mesothelioma usually develops in the lining of the lung. Mesothelioma can also develop in the lining of the abdomen, heart or testicles.

The two cancers grow differently. Lung cancer tends to grow in individual masses with defined boundaries. Mesothelioma starts as tiny tumor nodules that scatter the mesothelial lining, and eventually grow together to form a sheath-like tumor around the organ.

Mesothelioma is almost exclusively the result of asbestos exposure, while the majority of lung cancer cases are attributed to causes like tobacco use and environmental exposures to radon gas and second-hand smoke.

And while smoking does not influence risk of mesothelioma, it greatly increases an individual's risk of developing lung cancer. Those with the highest risk of lung cancer are smokers with a history of asbestos exposure.

By themselves, each risk factor damages lung tissue and makes it more susceptible to diseases. So when smoking and asbestos are combined, an individual's lung cancer risk increases at least fiftyfold.

  • Facts About Mesothelioma

    • 80 percent of mesothelioma cases are the result of asbestos exposure.
    • This cancer typically takes 20 to 50 years to develop after initial exposure to asbestos.
  • Facts About Lung Cancer

    • 80 percent of all lung cancer deaths are attributed to tobacco use.
    • 12 percent of lung cancer deaths are radon-related.
    • Lung cancer has a shorter latency period and may appear 10 to 30 years after first exposure to a carcinogen like asbestos or cigarette smoke.

Diagnosing Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer

Diagnosis Icon

To diagnose either type of cancer, a doctor may perform an X-ray, a bronchoscopy or a biopsy. During a bronchoscopy, the doctor inserts a tube down the throat and into the airways of the lung to detect abnormalities such as visible tumor growth. If the doctor finds irregular growth, he or she may collect a cell sample and test it for cancer.

In a biopsy, the doctor removes a small portion of suspicious tissue and tests it for cancer growth. The doctor may be able to perform this procedure using only a needle and no incision. To collect a larger sample, however, he or she may need to perform a minor biopsy surgery.

Another test is performed only when doctors suspect a patient has lung cancer. In this test, called sputum cytology, the doctor collects and tests a sample of thick phlegm that the patient coughed up from the lungs. This test may reveal abnormalities like blood or cancerous cells in the phlegm.

Have a Question About Lung Cancer?

Our team of Patient Advocates is available to answer questions about lung cancer or mesothelioma.

Treating These Cancers

For mesothelioma and lung cancer, treatment options largely depend on how much the cancer has spread. Most treatment plans include some combination of surgery, radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy.

If the cancer is localized to the lung area, surgery may be able to remove all or most of the tumor growth. But surgeries vary by specific type of cancer.


  • To treat pleural mesothelioma a surgeon may remove the lining of the lung, the affected portion of the lung or the entire cancerous lung.
  • Typical lung cancer surgeries include removing a small portion of the lung, a lobe of the lung or the entire lung.

For both types of cancer, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are also considered standard courses of treatment. If the mesothelioma or lung cancer is localized, either treatment can be used to shrink tumor growth and potentially kill all tumor cells. When used in this potentially curative way, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are typically combined with surgery. These treatments can still be used if the cancer has spread beyond its original location. In these cases, treatments are palliative and aim to reduce symptoms.

Experimental therapies are being tested through clinical trials for both cancers. Some of these innovative therapies include immunotherapy, gene therapy, photodynamic therapy and cyrotherapy. Photodynamic therapy is used more routinely in the treatment of lung cancer than in mesothelioma.


One year after diagnosis, survival rates for lung cancer and mesothelioma are close: 42 percent for lung cancer patients 39 percent for mesothelioma patients. Survival rates diverge after several years, with lung cancer patients having a long-term survival advantage. A decade after diagnosis, 10 percent of lung cancer patients and 4 percent of mesothelioma patients are alive.

Survival Rates for Lung Cancer & Mesothelioma Patients

Beyond the statistics, though, is the need for someone with an asbestos cancer to secure an accurate diagnosis: Is it asbestos-related lung cancer or is it mesothelioma? The next step would be to formulate the best individual treatment plan.

Additional Resources

Free VA Claims Assistance Get Help Now
Qualify For Free Medical Care Get Help Now
Get Help Paying for Treatment Learn More

Karen Selby is a registered nurse and a Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center. She worked in several subspecialties within nursing before joining in 2009.

  1. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (2001). Toxicological Profile for Asbestos. Retrieved from
  2. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (2006). Cigarette Smoking, Asbestos Exposure, and Your Health. Retrieved from
  3. American Cancer Society (2012). Malignant Mesothelioma. Retrieved from
  4. American Lung Association – Radon. Retrieved from
  5. Friedman, G.K. (2006). Clinical Diagnosis of Asbestos-Related Disease. In R.F. Dodson & S.P. Hammar, Asbestos: Risk Assessment, Epidemiology, and Health Effects (pp. 309-380). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
  6. Hodgson, J.T. & Darnton, A. (2000). The Quantitative Risks of Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer in Relation to Asbestos Exposure. Annals of Occupational Hygiene, 44(8), pp. 565-601. Retrieved from
  7. National Cancer Institute (2007). What You Need to Know About Lung Cancer. Retrieved from
  8. National Cancer Institute (2011). General Information About Malignant Mesothelioma. Retrieved from
  9. Surveillance, Epidemiology, & End Results (2012). Cancer Statistics: Fast Stats. Retrieved from

Share Our Page

View our resources for patients and families

Get Help Today
Get Your Free Mesothelioma Guide