Mesothelioma & Asbestosis: What’s the difference?

Awareness // April 26, 2016

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral and a known human carcinogen. If exposed to this substance, people can develop devastating diseases including mesothelioma and asbestosis. While these are two different diseases, they share many of the same characteristics.

Malignant mesothelioma, more commonly referred to as mesothelioma, is a rare form of cancer that affects the mesothelial cells of the human body. Mesothelial cells can be found in the membranes that cover the outer surfaces of the organs. Individuals who develop mesothelioma have been exposed to asbestos at some point over the course of their lifetime.

By comparison, asbestosis is a chronic condition of the lungs that results from prolonged exposure to a high concentration of asbestos fibers within one’s environment (usually found in the air). Asbestos fibers accumulate in the lungs, which creates scarring in the lungs over time as the body tries to remove the fibers. Symptoms of asbestosis include coughing, chest pain, and shortness of breath while performing routine tasks. The condition worsens with age, and patients with asbestosis do have a significant risk of developing mesothelioma.

Similarities Between Mesothelioma and Asbestosis

  • Cause
  • Symptoms
  • Latency Period
  • Diagnostic Procedures

Symptoms

Both mesothelioma and asbestosis are caused by exposure to asbestos. Likewise, patients with these diseases will experience many of the same symptoms, such as:

  • Wheezing or dry cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in the abdomen or chest
  • Difficulty breathing (or respiratory complications)
  • Anemia
  • Muscle weakness
  • Fever

Shortness of breath is a common early warning sign for both conditions. This makes it difficult to distinguish one disease from the other.

Latency Period

The average latency period for mesothelioma ranges from 20 to 50 years, and recent medical studies have found it to be a median of 30 to 40 years. The shortest latency period for mesothelioma, under normal circumstances, is 10-15 years. Asbestosis also has a delayed latency period, where the average is 10 to 20 years from the initial exposure to asbestos fibers.

Diagnosis

The diagnostic process for both mesothelioma and asbestosis requires numerous tests and the cooperation of a diverse team of medical professionals. The process can often involve the expertise of oncologists, surgeons, pulmonologists, pathologists, and radiologists. Ultimately, both diseases are diagnosed through the use of imaging tests – primary X-rays and CT scans. Higher levels of detail and imaging can be obtained through the use of MRI machines.

Differences Between Mesothelioma and Asbestosis

  • Classification
  • Treatment
  • Prognosis

Although both diseases originate from exposure to asbestos, they are different in nature. Mesothelioma is a type of cancer, and asbestosis is a chronic lung condition. As such, each one requires a different course of treatment.

Treatments

The rareness of mesothelioma makes it difficult to devise a standard course of treatment. Because there is no cure for mesothelioma, the primary goal of treatment is to improve and prolong a patient’s life, in addition to reducing the severity of its symptoms. Conventional treatment options for mesothelioma include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgery. When a person is working with their doctor to determine the best course of treatment for their mesothelioma, it is important that he or she is informed of the benefits and risks of each type of treatment.

There are two primary types of surgery used to treat mesothelioma. The first option is a pleurectomy in which the surgeon attempts to remove as much of the tumor from around the lung as he or she can. The second option is the more radical extrapleural pneumonectomy, which involves the lung itself being removed. Although there is some debate regarding which form of surgery is more effective at treating the cancer, medical studies have shown that 80-85% of patients who have had a pneumonectomy, quickly followed by radiation, do not have a recurrence of tumors in the chest.

For asbestosis, treatments primarily focus on improving the patient’s ability to breathe. Doctors will frequently prescribe inhalers and medications, such as antibiotics and bronchodilators, to treat asbestosis. For some patients, treatments like postural drainage, chest percussion, or oxygen therapy will be prescribed to relieve the severity of breathing difficulties, chest congestion, and chest tightness. In the most severe cases, a doctor will recommend surgery to remove scar tissue.

Prognosis

Unfortunately, unlike asbestosis patients, mesothelioma patients are often given a poor prognosis. From the date of diagnosis, most mesothelioma patients will live an average of 12 to 21 months. On the other hand, a patient who is diagnosed with asbestosis can live with the disease for decades, but it does require careful medical supervision and management. However, asbestosis is still classified as a deadly disease, and as aforementioned, a patient can still develop mesothelioma in the future.