Straight Talk about Mesothelioma, a blog series created by Michael T. Milano, M.D., Ph.D., a radiation oncology specialist, as a resource for mesothelioma patients and their loved ones.
Many people wonder: What is the difference between mesothelioma and other forms of lung cancer? While both cancers are deadly, they differ in terms of causes, how they develop in the body, how they are diagnosed, and how they are managed.
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that begins not in the lungs, but in the pleural lining around the lungs and chest. The cells comprising the pleural lining produce a fluid that makes it easier for organs to move around and against each other (as the lungs do when one breathes).
About 3,000 new cases of malignant mesothelioma are diagnosed every year. Mesothelioma is caused by asbestos exposure – exposure that most often occurs in the workplace. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was long used as a building material before its hazardous properties became more well-known. When asbestos is disturbed, tiny fibers can be released in the air and inhaled. These fibers may get stuck in pleural lining of the lungs and chest.
Because it develops slowly, mesothelioma may be discovered decades after someone was exposed to asbestos. Individuals who worked in construction, insulation, or shipbuilding are particularly vulnerable, since they may have been exposed many times.
Mesothelioma tends to stay within the chest (pleura, lymph nodes and lungs) as opposed to spreading to other parts of the body. There may be multiple, interconnecting lesions within the pleural cavity. One’s life expectancy following a diagnosis of mesothelioma tends to be low, since the cancer is often found in late stages. Sadly, the survival rate has not improved much over the past few decades, even with the best treatment methods.
Unlike mesothelioma, lung cancer most often develops as a discrete lung mass, which may spread to lymph nodes and/or other parts of the body (for example, elsewhere in the lung, bones, brain, liver, adrenal glands). Asbestos may cause lung cancer when the fibers are lodged in the lungs instead of in the pleura, but smoking and secondhand smoke cause around 80 percent of lung cancer. Individuals who smoke and who have also been exposed to asbestos are at an even higher risk for lung cancer. In individuals who don’t smoke, lung cancer may be caused by secondhand smoke, radon, or other toxins such as air pollution and diesel exhaust.
Lung cancer is less commonly found early, although this trend has been changing with the advent of CT screening. Individuals tend to think that their symptoms, such as tiredness and difficulty breathing, are caused by other problems, particularly if they have smoked for a long time. Unlike mesothelioma, when lung cancer reaches stage 4, it had spread to other parts of the body.
Lung cancer and mesothelioma can be diagnosed through a biopsy, though the cancerous cells will have a different appearance. The 2 diseases can be treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, though mesothelioma is often much more difficult to cure since the tumors branch out and are often widespread within and arounds the pleural cavity.
The key point to remember with both diseases is that early detection is key: Never ignore symptoms, see a doctor instead.