Mesothelioma vs. Lung Cancer

Quick Summary

Initial symptoms of lung cancer and mesothelioma are so similar that without further tests and specialist attention, making a precise diagnosis is impossible. Only mesothelioma specialists can provide an accurate diagnosis and prognosis of mesothelioma, as general oncologists (doctors that specialize in cancer) typically don’t have the experience required to recognize mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma vs. Lung Cancer Overview

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 in the asbestos fibers include genetic damage, scarring, and inflammation that can lead to cancer which is often diagnosed 10 to 50 years later.

Lung cancer is an abnormal growth in the cells of the lung that can form into tumors that spread to other areas of the body. Smoking is a high cause of lung cancer and mixed with any other probable circumstances, increases the risk of getting lung cancer exponentially. Other developments to cause lung cancer can include secondhand smoke, air pollution, genetic history, radiation or radon exposure, exposure to asbestos, and/or being infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

Treatment options vary considerably between the two cancers with initial treatment options being either the partial removal of the lung or lobe (lung cancer) or removal of the lining of the lung or the entire lung and its linings (mesothelioma). Diagnosing the right form of cancer is critical, as life expectancy rates vary but are better for patients with lung cancer than mesothelioma.

Differences Between Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer Cells

When looking at the cell formations during tests, scans, and under microscopes, two primary distinctions allow a proper diagnosis. Lung cancer typically grows with defined boundaries in individual masses. Mesothelioma originally starts as small nodule tumors scattered in the mesothelial lining. Eventually, they grow together to form a sheath-like tumor surrounding the lung or other organs.

While lung cancer is only present in the lung area itself, mesothelioma can present itself in the lungs, heart, lining of the abdomen, and testes.

Mesothelioma under an MRI scan reveals diseased tissue (tumors) through the rate of energy release. MRI scans align the water molecules in a person’s body with a magnetic field which are disrupted by a second radio frequency electromagnetic field to encourage the protons to release energy that is detected by the scanner. Additional magnetic fields can be utilized in the scan to capture images of the tumor to recognize which form of cancer is present and how far it has spread.

X-rays are also an excellent diagnostic tool for physicians, except for early stages of mesothelioma. By analyzing the soft tissue lining the chest cavity, the distinction can be seen for lung cancer, pneumonia, or mesothelioma (in later stages).

CT scans form a three-dimensional image of the lungs to determine bone, fat, tissue, and fluid. This process allows a proper diagnosis to differentiate between lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Diagnosing Mesothelioma vs Lung Cancer

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

Most often, doctors identify mesothelioma and lung cancer because of other problems the diseases cause.

Early warning signs include:

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

During examination, doctors review genetics and medical history 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.

Scattered tumor-like nodules that eventually form into a sheath that surrounds the lung is a sign of mesothelioma and that the cancer is not maintained by a boundary the way lung cancer frequently presents. Since lung cancer is a more common diagnosis, it must be ruled out first before diagnosing the patient with mesothelioma.

Treating Mesothelioma vs Lung Cancer

Treatments for mesothelioma and lung cancer vary based on different factors that specialists and tests will recommend. 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 cancer. The order of treatments provided is also determined by these factors.

Smoking is the first thing to quit for every patient if applicable (even for mesothelioma), as studies show that smokers that quit tend to have a better outcome after diagnosis than those that don’t.

Options for mesothelioma treatment based on specialist recommendations could include:

  • Radiation therapy: External and internal forms of radiation therapy can be used to treat, shrink, or relieve symptoms.
  • Chemotherapy: Drugs that are provided by vein or orally to attack the cancerous cells through the bloodstream to reach cancer anywhere in the body.
  • Surgery: Utilizing surgery to remove cancer or as much of the cancerous growth as possible, depending on the stage presenting.
  • Palliative treatments: Methods that can also be used to help improve quality of life and relieve symptoms.

Options for lung cancer treatment based on specialist recommendations could include:

  • Surgery: Utilizing surgery to remove cancerous growths, depending on the stage of the cancer, may be the best option for a cure.
  • Radiofrequency ablation (RFA): Using high-energy radio waves to heat the tumor, which destroys the cells.
  • Radiation therapy: External and internal forms of radiation therapy can be used to treat, shrink, or relieve symptoms.
  • Chemotherapy: Drugs that are provided by vein or orally to attack the cancerous cells through the bloodstream to reach cancer anywhere in the body.
  • Targeted therapies: Alternative drugs that work differently than chemotherapy and typically have less severe effects. These are often used for advanced forms of cancer either alone or in tandem with chemotherapy treatments.
  • Immunotherapy: Medicine specifically used to stimulate the immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells more efficiently.
  • Palliative treatments: Methods that can also be used to help improve quality of life and relieve symptoms. There are numerous treatments for symptoms that include fluid buildup around the heart, an airway blocked by a tumor, and fluid buildup around the lungs.

Getting a Second Opinion on Mesothelioma vs Lung Cancer

Pathology reports and lab results for the diagnosis of lung cancer 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 cells often resemble other forms of cancer.

Of the several 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 route and options for treatment and options.

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

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Last modified: February 20, 2018