Differences Between Mesothelioma & Lung Cancer Development

Mesothelioma and lung cancer differ in location, growth pattern, treatment and other aspects. Lung cancer develops inside the lung space, while pleural mesothelioma develops on the lung’s outer lining. Mesothelioma can also develop in the lining of the abdomen, heart or testes. Asbestos exposure can cause a malignant mesothelioma tumor and lung cancer to develop.

mesothelioma vs. lung cancer
Diagram shows how tumor location and development differentiate mesothelioma from lung cancer.

Doctors diagnose roughly 2,800 cases of mesothelioma across all types of asbestos-related cancer each year. Lung cancer is the second-most common cancer in the U.S. About 222,500 new cases emerge annually.

Mesothelioma begins as small nodules. They grow together into a sheath-like tumor around the organ. Lung cancer develops in larger, individual nodules with defined boundaries. Mesothelioma tends to remain near its origin. In contrast, lung cancer spreads or metastasizes early to other organs.

Facts About Mesothelioma vs. Lung Cancer
Mesothelioma Lung Cancer
Primary Cause Asbestos Exposure Smoking
Latency Period 20 to 60 Years 10 to 30 Years
Location Lining of lungs, abdomen, heart or testes Within the lung space
Tumor Characteristics Small, widespread nodules Large individual masses
5-Year Survival Rate 12% 26%

Many people misconstrue mesothelioma as “mesothelioma lung cancer.” Asbestos exposure is the leading cause. Tobacco use and environmental exposures, such as radon gas, cause most lung cancer cases, according to the American Lung Association. Each risk factor damages lung tissue. Combined, smoking and asbestos increase lung cancer risk at least fiftyfold.

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Similarities Between Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer

Mesothelioma and lung cancer both develop decades after asbestos exposure. Both cancers can spread within months. Both also have comparable diagnostic procedures and treatment techniques.

Death rates by state 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.

Top 5 Ranking States for Lung Cancer & Mesothelioma Deaths

Lung cancer and mesothelioma have overlapping symptoms. They cause chest pain, coughing, difficulty breathing, fatigue and weight loss.

Lung cancer and mesothelioma differ in physical characteristics and nonasbestos risk factors.

Diagnosing Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer

Diagnosing mesothelioma and lung cancer requires a doctor to perform a biopsy. A CT or PET scan alone is unreliable for differentiating between lung cancer and mesothelioma. Doctors may perform biopsies via a bronchoscopy, needle aspiration or thoracoscopic surgery.

The doctor inserts a tiny camera down the throat and airways during a bronchoscopy. It can detect abnormalities such as visible tumor growth. If the doctor finds irregular growth, they may collect and test a cell sample for cancer.

A needle biopsy under local anesthesia involves placing a small needle into the tumor. An ultrasound machine or CT scan can visualize it. A thoracoscopic surgery collects a solid tissue sample using a small camera inserted between the ribs. Fluid buildup is suctioned out for testing, but isn’t a reliable way to confirm a diagnosis.

Most patients with pleural mesothelioma will either show pleural thickening or effusion. Pleural thickening is extensive scarring in the chest cavity lining, while pleural effusion is fluid buildup in the chest cavity. Pleural thickening may not appear in lung cancer, but both exhibit pleural effusion.

Treating Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer

Mesothelioma and lung cancer treatment options depend on the cancer stage or how much the cancer has spread. Most treatment plans include some combination of surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Cisplatin is an effective chemotherapy drug for both lung cancer and mesothelioma.

If the cancer remains in the lung area, surgery may be able to remove most or all of the tumor growth. In lung cancer, surgeons may remove the cancerous lobe of the lung via a lobectomy procedure. Mesothelioma surgeons might remove the pleural lining of the lungs in a pleurectomy and decortication.

A 2021 study found that certain types of radiation, such as focal radiotherapy, are less effective as a lung cancer treatment than a mesothelioma one. Clinical trials for both cancers offer immunotherapy, gene therapy, photodynamic therapy and cryotherapy.

Prognosis for Mesothelioma vs. Lung Cancer

The prognosis for mesothelioma and lung cancer differs for each patient based on several factors. Factors include an accurate diagnosis, cancer stage, general health and access to specialized care.

Survival Rates for Lung Cancer & Mesothelioma Patients
Diagram shows 1-year and 10-year survival rates for mesothelioma and lung cancer.

Survival rates for lung cancer and mesothelioma are similar after one year. About 42% of lung cancer patients and 39% of mesothelioma patients are alive one year after diagnosis. Yet, more lung cancer patients than mesothelioma patients survive at least five years.

The higher rate of lung cancer cases means more widespread access to specialized treatment centers and doctors. Mesothelioma is much rarer, leaving patients with fewer options to improve their prognosis.

Common Questions About Mesothelioma Vs. Lung Cancer

Is mesothelioma a form of lung cancer?

No, mesothelioma is not the same as lung cancer. Mesothelioma is a cancer of the pleura, which is the lining around the lungs. However, because both lung cancer and mesothelioma arise within the chest cavity (thorax), mesothelioma is sometimes incorrectly called a “lung cancer.” Adding to the confusion, many lung cancer specialists also treat mesothelioma and vice versa.

Answered By: Anna Nowak, internationally renowned asbestos researcher and mesothelioma advocate

What are the warning signs of mesothelioma?

The earliest signs of mesothelioma include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Persistent cough
  • Fever or night sweats
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain or swelling
  • Lack of appetite or weight loss
Should you see a mesothelioma specialist if you have asbestos-related lung cancer?

Pleural mesothelioma doctors have expertise in diagnosing and treating several asbestos-related diseases. They understand the complexities of lung cancer caused by asbestos. Top mesothelioma doctors can connect you with clinical research trials and specialized treatments.

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