Mesothelioma vs Asbestosis Overview
Mesothelioma and asbestosis are widely different in their treatment options, symptoms and how they affect patient’s health. However, both 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 Are Decreasing
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 developing nations) that have worked in environments without asbestos regulations.
Differences Between Mesothelioma and Asbestosis
Mesothelioma and asbestosis differ in several important ways that make them entirely different diseases with vastly different health outcomes.
Mesothelioma and asbestosis have different:
- Causes and risk factors
- Symptoms and warning signs
- Diagnostic procedures
- Treatment options
Because mesothelioma and asbestosis are so different, they’re almost never treated by the same specialist. Mesothelioma must be diagnosed and treated by a doctor specializing in this rare cancer type, and not by a general oncologist.
Inhaling or ingesting small asbestos fibers is the only known cause of mesothelioma. After becoming trapped in organ tissue, asbestos fibers are almost incapable of being removed naturally.
Cellular changes from the asbestos fibers include genetic damage, scarring, and inflammation that can lead to cancer often diagnosed 10-50 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
- 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 mesothelioma cell type, overall health, medical history, gender, and other factors.
Asbestosis is caused by inhaling asbestos dust, allowing the microscopic asbestos fibers to settle in the lungs. Asbestos dust in the lungs may cause permanent damage leading to 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 as asbestosis until 30 years later.
After developing asbestosis, breathing problems steadily get worse.
Respiratory failure and shortness of breath usually appear within 15% of asbestosis patients. 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
- 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.
Diagnosing Mesothelioma vs Asbestosis
In addition to their unique symptoms and ways they develop, another way that mesothelioma and asbestosis differ is in how they are diagnosed by doctors. Because mesothelioma is a cancer it requires a different set of specialists to accurately identify cell type and disease stage.
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 diagnosing mesothelioma can involve:
- 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 can rule out the possibility of lung cancer if a history of asbestos exposure is present.
Doctors can only assume a clear asbestosis diagnosis if there is absolute evidence of asbestos exposure. Because symptoms are unique with asbestosis, doctors exclude symptoms to rule out other conditions. The combination of symptoms and a history of asbestos exposure help doctors eliminate other diseases.
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
Patients experience vastly different disease symptoms and progression depending on whether they have mesothelioma or asbestosis. Because each disease behaves so differently, they each require their own tailored treatment approaches that address the underlying condition at hand.
Most often, doctors administer a multimodal treatment plan for mesothelioma—treatment that involves two or more therapy types.
The types of treatments for mesothelioma and the order in which they are administered depending on the patients:
- Disease stage
- Disease location
- Mesothelioma cell type
- Overall health level
Depending on the above factors, mesothelioma specialists may recommend the following treatment options:
- 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. However, higher rates of asbestosis still remain in many developing countries and among immigrants. These cases may continue to show up for many years.
The general treatments available for restrictive lung diseases may include the following palliative care options:
- 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
Because asbestos-related diseases are relatively unknown and very rare, it can be difficult for even the most experienced physicians to accurately diagnose either disease from the start.
Whether you’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma or asbestosis—or you suspect you have either disease—it’s critical to seek a second opinion from an expert.
Mesothelioma 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. Pathology reports should also be delivered to other pathologists at different labs for a second opinion.
Of the several cell types and subtypes of mesothelioma, some resemble lung cancer strongly, while others in women look like ovarian cancer. A misdiagnosis can put a patient onto the wrong treatment plan.
A second opinion for mesothelioma diagnosis is extremely valuable, as an accurate diagnosis provides the greatest chance of survival.
Asbestosis Second Opinion
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 help indicate this if patients are unsure of their asbestos exposure history. In rare cases, a lung biopsy may be the best option for diagnosis, as lab techs can see asbestos dust in the samples.
For more information on seeking a second opinion on your diagnosis, contact Mesothelioma Hope today to speak to our Patient Advocates.