What is the difference between mesothelioma and lung cancer?

Although they carry some similarities in symptoms and treatments, pleural mesothelioma is not a type of lung cancer.

The first major difference is the incidence rate of the two conditions. Lung cancer is the second-most-common cancer in the U.S. with about 222,500 new cases annually.

Doctors diagnose roughly 2,800 cases of malignant mesothelioma, which includes all four types of the asbestos-related cancer, each year.

Malignant mesothelioma is primarily a disease of extended exposure to asbestos, a toxic mineral once used extensively in construction and manufacturing. The cancer has an average latency period of about 40 years. Some patients present years beyond that, while others may show symptoms 10 to 15 years after maximum exposure.

Lung cancer symptoms typically appear 10 to 30 years after a person starts smoking, which is the overwhelming cause of lung cancer.

Exposure to asbestos can cause asbestos-related lung cancer or increase the likelihood of a smoker developing asbestos-related lung cancer, but tobacco abuse has no influence on the risk of developing mesothelioma.

However, more often than not, mesothelioma patients have a history of tobacco abuse. That’s unfortunate because it introduces a host of other confounding factors.

In some cases, we might have a patient with malignant mesothelioma, who from a cancer standpoint (tumor spread, size of tumors, etc.) is a candidate for surgery. However, because of the effects of smoking, their lung function or heart function may be compromised from a functional standpoint, making them ineligible for surgery.

The tumors may be resectable, but the patient can’t tolerate surgery because of the irreversible damage cigarette smoking has done to their heart and lungs.

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