Difference Between Malignant Mesothelioma and Asbestosis

Quick Summary

While both mesothelioma and asbestosis are caused by exposure to asbestos, symptoms and general treatments are widely different depending on the type of asbestos patients are exposed to and how they contract these diseases.

Mesothelioma vs. Asbestosis Overview

Mesothelioma and asbestosis are widely different in treatment options, symptoms and how they affect patient’s health. Both, however, are incurable and often present years after the initial exposure to asbestos. The general prognosis for patients varies depending on a range of different factors. Most treatment options for both are focused more on palliative care (improving the quality of life) rather than trying to cure symptoms.

Cases of both mesothelioma and asbestosis are slowly decreasing since workplaces now take measures to protect their employees from exposure to harmful substances like asbestos. Most cases present are from patients that were exposed to asbestos in the 1970s and in immigrants (mostly from third world countries) that have worked in environments without asbestos regulations.

Differences Between Mesothelioma and Asbestosis

Mesothelioma is caused by small fibers released from asbestos entering the body by air or orally. After these fibers are ingested, they become trapped in organ tissue and are almost incapable of being removed naturally.

Cellular changes from the asbestos fibers include genetic damage, scarring and inflammation that can lead to cancer which is often diagnosed 10 to 50 years later. Mesothelioma originally starts as small nodule tumors scattered in the mesothelial lining. Eventually, they grow together to form a sheath-like tumor that surrounds the lung or other organs. Symptoms of mesothelioma often present as other issues and diagnosis can be difficult since it often looks like other forms of cancer.

Common symptoms patients with mesothelioma experience include:

  • A cough that doesn’t go away
  • Shortness of breath
  • Blood in mucus that is coughed up from the lungs
  • Swelling of the face or neck veins
  • Tiredness
  • Trouble breathing or swallowing
  • Unexplained loss of appetite or weight loss

While mesothelioma is currently incurable, patients may be given longer survival rates depending on the subtype of cancer, overall health, medical history, gender and more.

Asbestosis is caused by inhaling asbestos dust, allowing the microscopic asbestos fibers to settle in the lungs which may cause permanent lung damage such as chronic breathing problems. A unique trait of asbestosis is the “lag time” in showing any symptoms after exposure. For example, just a year of being exposed to asbestos may not show up until 30 years later.

After developing asbestosis, breathing problems steadily get worse. Respiratory failure and shortness of breath usually appear within 15% of people, and in all patients, other symptoms start to appear within 10 years of initial exposure. Smokers have a greater risk of developing lung cancer on top of asbestosis, and quitting is imperative to assist in avoiding serious complications.

Symptoms common in patients with asbestosis include:

  • Persistent and dry coughing or wheezing
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath or breathing problems
  • A dry and crackling sound in the lungs while breathing
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Rounder and wider toes and fingertips (clubbing)

If you or a loved one experience any of the above symptoms, make sure to talk to a doctor and tell them if you’ve ever been exposed to asbestos.

Rates of survival vary depending on how much damage the asbestos has caused in the lungs and which subtype of asbestosis they have. Treatments to relieve the symptoms, prevent complications and slow the progress of the disease are all employed to improve the quality of life for each patient. Other possible ways of relieving symptoms are to make certain lifestyle changes, and with a doctor’s approval, they might help to prevent other serious diseases like cancer.

For more information on prognosis and rates of survival for asbestos and mesothelioma, make sure to talk to your doctor. Survival rates depend on a variety of factors and any breakthroughs in current studies or clinical trials.

Diagnosing Mesothelioma vs Asbestosis

A mesothelioma diagnosis can be confused with lung cancer, as they have similar sets of symptoms. A history of asbestos exposure is an indicator for doctors to look for mesothelioma specifically.

During examinations, doctors will review medical history and genetics to figure out if more tests should be ordered and deciphered by specialists.

Imaging tests for diagnosis can involve:

  • X-rays
  • Computed tomography (CT/CAT scan)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
  • Bone scan

Other lab tests, including biopsies and blood tests, take cells from the lung to determine the diagnosis by scrutiny under a microscope.

While looking at the images from all scans and tests, mesothelioma specialists will rule out the possibility of lung cancer in cell growth if a history of asbestos exposure is present by the growth pattern of the cells.

A clear and immediate diagnosis of asbestosis can be assumed only if there is absolute evidence of asbestos exposure. Because symptoms are unique with asbestosis, diagnosis is usually determined after excluding other possible symptoms, determining a confirmed history of asbestos exposure, and excluding an alternate diagnosis.

Tests conducted for asbestosis generally include:

  • Chest X-rays: These will show lung scarring and damage, which indicates asbestos exposure.
  • Lung biopsy: Though this is usually only used in rare cases, a lung biopsy shows the fibers in the lungs which will make diagnosis clear.

Treating Mesothelioma vs Asbestosis

After being diagnosed with mesothelioma, it is important for patients to quit smoking if applicable, as studies show that smokers that quit tend to have a better outcome after diagnosis than those that don’t.

Most often, more than one form of treatment will be used based on the stage of the cancerous growth, lung function, a person’s overall health and specific traits of the subtype of mesothelioma. The order of treatments provided is also determined by these factors, and talking with specialists is important to understand the results and factors of each treatment combination.

Options for mesothelioma treatment based on specialist recommendations could include:

  • Radiation therapy: Doctors use radiation therapy to treat, shrink, or relieve symptoms.
  • Chemotherapy: Drugs are injected into the bloodstream to reach cancer anywhere in the body, killing cells in its path.
  • Surgery: Surgery allows doctors to physically remove visible signs of mesothelioma.
  • Palliative treatments: To help ease symptoms and improve quality of life, doctors use a combination of palliative treatments.

There are no current treatments for asbestosis. Managing asbestosis is focused on preventative measures rather than trying to treat it. Asbestos is still being phased out of many industries and numbers of asbestosis cases are decreasing. The presence of asbestos is still present in many developing countries and immigrants may continue to show up for many years.

When diagnosed, all exposure to asbestos should cease immediately, and smokers must quit avoiding serious complications.

The general treatments available that are used for restrictive lung diseases for palliative care and may include:

  • Bronchodilator inhalers
  • Exercise programs
  • Vaccination shots against the flu and pneumococcal pneumonia (helps prevent lung infections)
  • Pure oxygen therapy (for advanced cases)
  • Prompt treatments for respiratory infections (if applicable)

For patients that are at end-stage asbestosis, the only way to manage symptoms is lung transplantation, though most patients may not be eligible due to other medical problems or advanced age. Other methods of treatment can be determined by doctors and specialists based on available clinical trials.

Getting a Second Opinion on Mesothelioma vs Asbestosis

Pathology reports and lab results for the diagnosis of mesothelioma should be delivered to other pathologists at different labs for a second opinion. Diagnosing mesothelioma, even in a lab looking at samples from fluid tests, is extremely difficult as the cells often resemble other forms of cancer.

Of the several cell types and subtypes of mesothelioma, some resemble lung cancer strongly, while others in women look like ovarian cancer. For this reason, a second opinion on a diagnosis is extremely valuable, as general prognosis drops the longer it takes to make an accurate diagnosis. Once a diagnosis is decided on for either mesothelioma or lung cancer, a subtype can be determined to help determine the best options for treatment and options.

Asbestosis is also difficult to diagnose, as symptoms often look like other problems. Chest X-rays can reveal lung scarring, and lung function tests may indicate asbestos exposure as the cause of symptoms. Doctors need clear evidence that asbestos exposure has occurred to diagnose asbestosis and tests can lead them to this outcome if patients are unsure of their chances of previous exposure. In rare cases, a biopsy of the lung may be the best option for diagnosis, as laboratory technicians can see fibers of asbestos dust in the samples taken.

For more information on seeking a second opinion on your diagnosis, contact Mesothelioma Help Now today to speak to our Patient Advocates.

View Author and Sources

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Last modified: March 2, 2018