Mesothelioma vs Lung Cancer

Mesothelioma and lung cancer are both types of cancer. Mesothelioma is almost always caused by asbestos. Lung cancer can be caused by asbestos, but most cases are linked to smoking. Initial symptoms of mesothelioma and lung cancer are similar. For that reason, proper diagnostic tests are needed to make the correct diagnosis and develop an appropriate treatment plan.

Written and Fact-Checked by: Laura Wright

Mesothelioma vs Lung Cancer Overview

A physician explains the difference between mesothelioma vs lung cancer to a patient

Lung cancer and mesothelioma are two different types of cancer. They develop and spread in unique ways and require different treatment approaches. A patient’s health and overall survival depends on obtaining an accurate diagnosis of mesothelioma vs. lung cancer.

What Is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma only has one known cause: asbestos. More specifically, mesothelioma is caused by the ingestion or inhalation of microscopic asbestos fibers. Once inside the body, these fibers become trapped in organ tissue and trigger changes at a cellular level.

The two most common types of mesothelioma are malignant pleural mesothelioma and peritoneal mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is usually diagnosed 10-50 years after the initial exposure to asbestos.

What Is Lung Cancer?

Lung cancer has multiple causes and develops differently depending on the underlying cause. Like other types of cancer, lung cancer is a disease in which cells grow out of control and spread to other parts of the body.

There are two types of lung cancer — small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Smoking is the main cause of lung cancer.

Other risk factors for lung cancer include:

  • Air pollution
  • Asbestos
  • Genetic history
  • Radiation or radon exposure
  • Secondhand smoke
Quick Facts About Lung Cancer vs Mesothelioma
  • The most common type of mesothelioma is pleural mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the lungs (pleura).
  • The most common type of lung cancer is non-small cell lung cancer.
  • About 80% of lung cancer deaths are caused by smoking, and about 80% of mesothelioma patients have a history of asbestos exposure, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
  • Mesothelioma is a rare disease with about 3,000 cases diagnosed in the United States each year. About 235,000 Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer every year.
  • Mesothelioma can develop in tissues around the lungs, but it is not a type of lung cancer.

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Difference Between Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer

There are distinct differences between lung cancer cells and mesothelioma cells when viewed under a microscope. These differences allow doctors to make an accurate diagnosis.

Lung cancer cells typically grow in individual masses with defined boundaries. Lung cancer tumors can spread through a process called metastasis to other regions of the body, including the lymph nodes and the brain.

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, abdomen, or other internal organs.

Mesothelioma vs Lung Cancer Symptoms

Mesothelioma is sometimes mistaken for lung cancer because both diseases have similar symptoms. Additionally, these symptoms usually appear when the cancer is at an advanced stage.

Symptoms of mesothelioma and lung cancer include:

  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Fluid buildup (pleural effusion)
  • Persistent cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling in the face
  • Tiredness
  • Unexplained weight loss

Diagnosing Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer

Doctors will look at a patient’s medical records and order tests when diagnosing mesothelioma and lung cancer. They will also ask the patient about their smoking history and whether they may have been exposed to asbestos in the past.

Tests for diagnosing mesothelioma vs lung cancer include:

  • Biopsies of the lung or chest wall
  • Bloodwork
  • Imaging tests (chest X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, and PET scans)
  • Sputum cytology (microscopic exam of phlegm to look for cancer cells)
A tissue sample is placed under a microscope
Doctors look at a tissue or fluid sample under a microscope to definitively diagnose mesothelioma.

How cells appear under a microscope tells doctors what type of cancer is present.

In addition to examining individual cells, doctors may also look at the tumors (clumps of cancerous tissue). Scattered tumor-like nodules that form a sheath around the lung is a sign of mesothelioma. Mesothelioma tumors are not maintained by a boundary the way lung cancer tumors usually are.

Since lung cancer is a more common diagnosis, it must be ruled out before diagnosing the patient with mesothelioma.

2022 Update on Diagnosing Lung Cancer vs Mesothelioma

Scientists continue to study the best way to diagnose pleural mesothelioma and differentiate it from lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. For example, research published in a medical journal in October 2022 indicates that infrared spectroscopy (a way to identify chemical substances using infrared radiation) has the potential to identify pleural mesothelioma using blood serum and differentiate it from lung cancer.

Other researchers are looking at the use of tumor markers and hyaluronic acid (a natural substance in eye and joint fluid) to tell the two cancers apart.

Have you or a loved been diagnosed with mesothelioma? Our Free Checklist of Questions to Ask Your Doctor can help you get the information you need to make critical decisions about treatment, second opinions, and more.

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Treating Mesothelioma vs Lung Cancer

Because mesothelioma and lung cancer are different diseases, they require different treatment plans. Both mesothelioma treatment and lung cancer treatment usually require two or more types of therapy.

Surgery is often an option for both mesothelioma and lung cancer if the disease has been discovered at an early stage.

Other treatment options for mesothelioma and lung cancer include: 

  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy drugs attack cancerous cells throughout the body.
  • Radiation: Radiation therapy can be used to treat, shrink, or relieve symptoms.
  • Immunotherapy: This newer type of treatment stimulates the immune system to kill cancer cells.
  • Targeted therapy: These drugs work differently than chemotherapy agents and typically have less severe effects. They are often used for advanced forms of cancer either alone or with chemotherapy.

Patients who have late-stage mesothelioma or lung disease and do not qualify for other treatments may receive palliative care. Palliative treatments can help improve a patient’s quality of life and relieve symptoms.

Order your Free Mesothelioma Guide for detailed information on the different types of treatment available to fight this cancer.

Getting a Second Opinion on Mesothelioma vs Lung Cancer

Diagnosing mesothelioma can be difficult as mesothelioma cells often resemble other types of cancer, including lung cancer.

It’s critical to get a second opinion on a mesothelioma vs lung cancer diagnosis, especially when a history of asbestos exposure is present.

Getting an accurate diagnosis from a mesothelioma doctor can dramatically impact patient survival.

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

Mesothelioma vs Lung Cancer FAQs

Is mesothelioma the same as lung cancer?

No, mesothelioma is not the same as lung cancer?

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that grows on the mesothelium. This thin tissue covers the lungs and other internal organs.

Lung cancer, however, develops inside the lungs.

Do mesothelioma and lung cancer have the same symptoms?

Both mesothelioma and lung cancer have many of the same symptoms.

Some common symptoms of both of these cancers include:

  • A persistent cough
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Fatigue
  • Swelling in the face
  • Unexplained weight loss

If you or a loved one are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should contact your doctor as soon as possible.

What type of cancer is caused by asbestos?

There are several types of cancer that are caused by asbestos exposure.

For example, asbestos can cause:

  • Larynx cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Mesothelioma
  • Ovarian cancer
Written by:

Lead Editor

Laura Wright is a journalist and content strategist with more than 15 years of professional experience. She attended college at the University of Florida, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2008. Her writing has been featured in The Gainesville Sun and other regional publications throughout Florida.

  1. American Cancer Society. “Surgery for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer.” Retrieved from: Accessed on January 5, 2023.

  2. American Cancer Society. “Radiation Therapy for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer.” Retrieved from: Accessed on January 5, 2023.

  3. American Cancer Society. “Chemotherapy for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer.” Retrieved from: Accessed on January 5, 2023.

  4. American Cancer Society. “Targeted Drug Therapy for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer.” Retrieved from: Accessed on January 5, 2023.

  5. American Cancer Society. “Immunotherapy for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer.” Retrieved from: Accessed on January 5, 2023.

  6. American Cancer Society. “Palliative Procedures for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer.”
    Retrieved from: Accessed on January 5, 2023.

  7. American Cancer Society. “Tests for Lung Cancer.” Retrieved from: Accessed on January 5, 2023.

  8. American Cancer Society. “What Is Lung Cancer?” Retrieved from: Accessed on January 5, 2023.

  9. Healthline. “What’s the Difference Between Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer and Mesothelioma?” Retrieved from: Accessed on January 5, 2023.

  10. Mayo Clinic. “Lung cancer.” Retrieved from: Accessed on January 5, 2023.

  11. National Cancer Institute. “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk.” Retrieved from: Accessed on January 5, 2023.

  12. Saraya T, Ohkuma K, Fujiwara M, Ishii H. “Diagnostic method for malignant pleural effusion distinguishing malignant mesothelioma from lung cancer using pleural carcinoembryonic antigen and hyaluronic acid levels.” Medicine (Baltimore). 2022 Jan 7;101(1):e28517. Retrieved from: Accessed on January 5, 2023.

  13. Yonar D, Severcan M, Gurbanov R, Sandal A, Yilmaz U, Emri S, Severcan F.
    “Rapid diagnosis of malignant pleural mesothelioma and its discrimination from lung cancer and benign exudative effusions using blood serum.” Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) – Molecular Basis of Disease, Volume 1868, Issue 10,
    2022, 166473, ISSN 0925-4439, Retrieved from: Accessed on January 5, 2023.

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