Lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma: What is the difference?

Asbestos can wreak havoc on human lungs. In a post about mesothelioma last month, we explained the basics about that devastating asbestos-caused lung disease. Today we will look at the difference between the two kinds of asbestos-caused cancer in the lungs: mesothelioma and lung cancer.

Asbestos inhalation

Asbestos can cause disease and injury in the lungs when its microscopic fibers are inhaled. For example, if the fibers are released when asbestos-containing material is disturbed or broken, such as in industrial, construction, renovation, demolition or mining processes, the invisible fibers become airborne in dust-like fashion. Workers or anyone else in the area may inhale the fibers, which can cause dangerous harm to the lungs that may not manifest until decades later.

The orange analogy

A comparison to the orange is helpful to understand the asbestos-related cancers that can impact the lungs. You can think of the lungs as the fruit or meat of an orange and the pleura or lining around the lungs as the orange peel. Lung cancer grows in the fruit or meat inside the peel and mesothelioma grows in the peel itself.

If you consider the act of breathing, this analogy makes sense. The tiny specks of asbestos when breathed in along with air pass through the airways of the lungs and may become lodged in the walls of the airways, potentially causing lung cancer. If the asbestos fibers do not become lodged in the airways of the lungs, the fibers may travel on to the ends of the airways, where they could continue and become blocked by the pleura, the thin lining around the lungs. Lodged in the pleura, the asbestos particles could eventually cause mesothelioma.

So which type of cancer develops, if either does, depends on where the particles ended up lodging, in the meat or the peel.

Asbestos-related lung cancer

Lung cancer from asbestos exposure usually develops in the cells that line the airways, according to the National Institutes of Health or NIH.

It cannot be overemphasized that anyone who smokes and has been exposed to asbestos, even years ago, should make every effort to stop smoking, as the risk of developing lung cancer from asbestos exposure rises sharply in people who also smoke tobacco.

Amazingly, the National Cancer Institute at NIH says that a smoker with past asbestos exposure has a greater risk of lung cancer than “the individual risks from asbestos and smoking added together.”

Symptoms of lung cancer can potentially include:

  • Chronic coughing
  • Coughing up blood
  • Lung infections
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain


Malignant mesothelioma is a rare, devastating disease that is usually in an advanced stage by the time it is discovered. Treatment options are limited and for this reason, many victims participate in clinical trials of experimental treatments.

Symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Lumps under the skin of the chest
  • Severe coughing
  • Weight loss

Treatment options

Treatment for both cancers may include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Medical research is ongoing into alleviating symptoms and lengthening lives for patients with either disease through studies involving gene therapy, targeted drug therapy, immunotherapy and more.

We will continue to provide our clients and readers with information about asbestos-related diseases and injuries.

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