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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. Proper diagnostic tests are needed to make the correct diagnosis and develop an appropriate treatment plan.

Medically reviewed by: Amy Fair, RN

Last updated:

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 depend 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 ingesting or inhaling 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.

A mesothelioma diagnosis can be shocking, but there is hope. Find inspiring stories of survival in our Free Survivors Guide.

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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 areas 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 annually in the United States. 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.

Difference Between Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer

When viewed under a microscope, there are distinct differences between lung cancer cells and mesothelioma cells. 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 metastasis to other body regions, including the lymph nodes and the brain.

Mesothelioma originally begins 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.

Have you or a loved one been diagnosed with mesothelioma? Connect with top doctors who can help you.

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.

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 diagnose mesothelioma definitively.

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

In addition to examining individual cells, doctors may look at the tumors (clumps of cancerous tissue). Scattered tumor-like nodules that form a sheath around the lung are a sign of mesothelioma. A boundary like lung cancer tumors does not maintain mesothelioma tumors.

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

New 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 using tumor markers and hyaluronic acid (a natural substance in eye and joint fluid) to tell the two cancers apart.

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 mesothelioma and lung cancer if the disease has been discovered early.

Other treatment options for mesothelioma and lung cancer include: 

  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy drugs attack cancerous cells throughout the body.
  • Radiation: Radiation therapy can treat, shrink, or relieve symptoms.
  • Immunotherapy: This newer 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 with late-stage mesothelioma or lung disease who 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 Survivors Guide to see which treatments helped others survive for many years after being diagnosed.

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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.

Getting a second opinion on a mesothelioma or lung cancer diagnosis is critical, especially when a history of asbestos exposure is present. Getting an accurate diagnosis from a mesothelioma doctor can dramatically impact patient survival.

Learn how prompt diagnosis and treatment played a role in helping other patients live for decades with mesothelioma in our Free Mesothelioma Survivors Guide.

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 in the mesothelium, the thin tissue covers the lungs and other internal organs.

Lung cancer, however, develops inside or on 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

You should contact your doctor immediately if you or a loved one are experiencing these symptoms.

What type of cancer is caused by asbestos?

Several types of cancer are caused by asbestos exposure.

For example, asbestos can cause:

  • Larynx cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Mesothelioma
  • Ovarian cancer
Registered nurse Amy FairReviewed by:Amy Fair, RN

Registered Nurse (RN)

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Amy Fair, RN, is a mesothelioma nurse with over 20 years of experience offering unwavering support to patients from the moment they are diagnosed and throughout the progression of their disease. Before becoming a mesothelioma nurse, Amy spent ten years providing compassionate care via home health care.

    Jenna TozziWritten by:

    Director of Patient Advocacy

    Jenna Tozzi, RN, is the Director of Patient Advocacy at Mesothelioma Hope. With more than 15 years of experience as an adult and pediatric oncology nurse navigator, Jenna provides exceptional guidance and support to mesothelioma patients and their loved ones. Jenna has been featured in Oncology Nursing News and is a member of the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators & the American Nurses Association.

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    1. American Cancer Society. “Surgery for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer.” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 15, 2024.
    2. American Cancer Society. “Radiation Therapy for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer.” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 15, 2024.
    3. American Cancer Society. “Chemotherapy for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer.” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 15, 2024.
    4. American Cancer Society. “Targeted Drug Therapy for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer.” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 15, 2024.
    5. American Cancer Society. “Immunotherapy for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer.” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 15, 2024.
    6. American Cancer Society. “Palliative Procedures for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer.”
      Retrieved from: Accessed on February 15, 2024.
    7. American Cancer Society. “Tests for Lung Cancer.” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 15, 2024.
    8. American Cancer Society. “What Is Lung Cancer?” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 15, 2024.
    9. Healthline. “What’s the Difference Between Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer and Mesothelioma?” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 15, 2024.
    10. Mayo Clinic. “Lung cancer.” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 15, 2024.
    11. National Cancer Institute. “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk.” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 15, 2024.
    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 February 15, 2024.
    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 February 15, 2024.
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