Asbestosis vs. Mesothelioma — What Veterans Need to Know

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Two older veterans stand next to one another

Asbestosis and mesothelioma are both deadly diseases caused by asbestos exposure. Veterans run a higher risk of asbestosis and mesothelioma since the U.S. military relied on asbestos-based products for decades. Get a breakdown on asbestosis vs. mesothelioma below.

What Are Asbestosis and Mesothelioma?

Asbestosis and mesothelioma are not one and the same.

  • Asbestosis is a type of lung disease. It develops after asbestos fibers get lodged in the lung’s alveoli (microscopic sacs that hold air). The fibers damage the lungs over time, causing inflammation and scarring.
  • Mesothelioma is a cancer that forms when asbestos fibers get stuck in the linings of the lungs, abdomen, heart, and testicles. The cancer is very aggressive and can spread through the body without severe symptoms.

Why some people develop asbestosis and not mesothelioma is still under research. However, veterans have a higher risk of both illnesses due to widespread military asbestos use.

Until the early 1980s, the entire U.S. military used asbestos-containing products to make airplanes, ships, bases, and vehicles without knowing the health risks.

Did you know

One out of every three mesothelioma patients is a U.S. veteran today.

Veterans need to know the similarities and differences between both illnesses so they can get proper medical care.

Symptoms of Asbestosis vs. Mesothelioma

Asbestosis shares several symptoms with pleural mesothelioma (which develops in the lung lining).

According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of both diseases include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight loss

The diseases do not always share symptoms, though. Mesothelioma symptoms often vary by type.

  • Peritoneal mesothelioma (which forms in the abdomen lining) causes abdominal bloating, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma (which affects the heart lining) include irregular heartbeat and chest pain.
  • Testicular mesothelioma symptoms include swelling and inflammation of the testicle lining.

A notable symptom found only in asbestosis patients is clubbing. Clubbing causes the fingertips and toes to bulge out and turn red.

Patients experiencing any of the symptoms listed above should talk to a doctor immediately. Patients should also tell their doctor if they were ever exposed to asbestos. This can help doctors rule out other illnesses that share these symptoms.

Diagnosing Asbestosis vs. Mesothelioma

Both asbestosis and mesothelioma are diagnosed through a series of tests.

Doctors diagnose asbestosis through:

  1. Physical examinations: These will reveal symptoms like a dry, crackling sound in the lungs and clubbing of the toes and fingers.
  2. X-rays and CT scans: These tests can confirm internal damage like scarring on the lungs.
  3. Lung function tests: Doctors see how well a patient’s lungs work by having them blow into a device called a spirometer.
  4. Biopsies: Doctors will extract samples of tissues and/or fluid from the lungs using a thin tube or needle. They can then look at these samples in the lab to see if asbestos fibers are present.

Doctors use many of these tests to diagnose mesothelioma as well, but there are a few crucial differences.

Tests to diagnose mesothelioma include:

  1. Physical examinations: The examinations depend on where the patient’s symptoms are (such as abdomen, chest, heart, or testicles).
  2. Imaging scans: In addition to X-rays and CT scans, doctors may also use PET scans, MRIs, and/or echocardiograms to make a mesothelioma diagnosis. Blood tests may also be used to look for possible signs of cancer within the body.
  3. Biopsies: A biopsy is the only way to confirm that someone has mesothelioma. After extracting a fluid or tissue sample from the affected area, doctors can see if any cancer cells are present under a microscope.

After a diagnosis, patients can learn about what treatment options are available for their illness from their doctor.

Treating Mesothelioma vs. Asbestosis

There is no cure for either asbestosis or mesothelioma, but treatments can extend a patient’s lifespan and ease symptoms.

Treatments for asbestosis include:

  • Oxygen: Supplemental oxygen can help asbestosis patients breathe better.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation: This teaches patients breathing, exercise, and relaxation techniques to improve their quality of life.
  • Quitting smoking: Smoking makes asbestosis progress at a faster rate, according to the American Lung Association (ALA).

Some people with asbestosis may qualify for a lung transplant if their symptoms are serious enough.

Mesothelioma patients have a few more treatment options available to them.

Mesothelioma treatments include:

  • Surgery to remove tumors and cancerous cells
  • Chemotherapy to kill cancerous cells using medications
  • Radiation therapy to kill cancer cells through X-rays and other energy waves

These mesothelioma treatments can help extend a patient’s lifespan by months or even years. Other treatments also may be available through clinical trials.

That said, treatment options can vary by mesothelioma type and stage (how far the cancer has spread through the body).

Those with mesothelioma or asbestosis can access these treatments by speaking to their doctor. Mesothelioma patients often need treatment from skilled specialists who work at cancer centers.

Veterans with either condition can receive medical treatments through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system.

Care Costs of Asbestosis vs. Mesothelioma

Medical treatments and other health care costs for asbestosis and mesothelioma can be extremely hard to afford.

  • Mesothelioma can cost over $500,000 to treat
  • A lung transplant for an asbestosis patient can cost over $130,000

Thankfully, there are ways for patients to cover these expenses.

Patients with mesothelioma or asbestosis can:

  • Access financial compensation with legal help
  • File for VA benefits and compensation if they were exposed to asbestos during military service

Learn more about the differences between asbestosis vs. mesothelioma by contacting us today. Our team can also help you understand your medical and financial options after a diagnosis.

Veterans Support Team
Christopher Dryfoos PhotoWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos is a journalist and member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). As the grandson of the U.S. Navy’s first forensic pathologist, he aims to help veterans with mesothelioma access needed care.

View 3 Sources
  1. Mayo Clinic. (2019, December 27). Asbestosis. Retrieved June 24, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/asbestosis/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20354643
  2. Mayo Clinic. (2019, January 15). Mesothelioma. Retrieved June 24, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mesothelioma/symptoms-causes/syc-20375022
  3. American Lung Association. (n.d.). Diagnosing and Treating Asbestosis. Retrieved June 24, 2020, from https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/asbestosis/treating-and-managing