Mesothelioma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) are two very different conditions. However, they often have similar symptoms, and it is not unheard of for people to suffer from both conditions. If you have been diagnosed with either condition, make sure that you request for a second opinion to confirm the diagnosis.

What Is COPD?

COPD is a blanket term for various lung conditions, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. It is an obstructive and progressive disease. Over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to breathe. A lot of people who have asbestosis, caused by exposure to asbestos, often develop COPD. Those who have mesothelioma often have it as well. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are currently around 12 million people who are diagnosed with COPD in this country each year, with a further 12 million not being diagnosed. It also currently ranks as the fourth leading cause of death in this country.

What Is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a very rare, but very aggressive type of cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, heart, abdomen, or testicles. Pleural mesothelioma, which is found in 75% of cases and affects the lungs, is the most common form. It has a very long latency period and most people don’t know they have the condition until 20 to 50 years after they first start developing it. As a result, it is often discovered to be present when it is in very advanced stages and treatment is usually no longer a possibility.

COPD vs Mesothelioma – Causes

Smoking is the main cause of COPD, although exposure to chemical fumes, pollution, and asbestos can also lead to it. Mesothelioma is caused by asbestos exposure. The fibers of the minerals become lodged in the lining of the lungs, damaging the cells and leading to cancerous mutations. According to the American Lung Association, 80% to 90% of cases of COPD are caused by smoking. Smoking not only damages the lungs, it also stops the lungs from being able to protect themselves from infections.

COPD vs Mesothelioma – Symptoms

COPD and mesothelioma have very similar symptoms because they both affect the lungs.

Common symptoms include:

  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Painful coughing

COPD is a slowly developing disease that usually starts with wheezing, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, difficulty in breathing, increased mucus production, and coughs. These symptoms get worse over time. People are also more likely to catch colds and flu, have lower muscle endurance, lose weight, and experience edema in the legs, feet, or ankles. Over time, as the disease progresses, symptoms also become more significant. They include:

  • Lack of mental awareness
  • Gray or blue fingernails or lips due to lack of oxygen in the blood
  • Difficulty in talking
  • Increased heart rate

COPD vs Mesothelioma – Diagnosis

Most of the time, people are diagnosed when they are past the age of 40. A number of complications are associated with COPD. These include:

  • Heart attacks
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased risk of respiratory infections, particularly pneumonia

A diagnosis of COPD is obtained by investigating symptoms and medical history, as well as family history. Also, spirometry, which measures the amount of air someone can exhale, is generally used, as well as a blood test. Spirometry is particularly important as it can also instantly show whether medication, such as an inhaler, is working. Furthermore, doctors are able to identify the presence of COPD even before symptoms are present, and it enables them to rule out asthma and heart failure. A physician may also use a CT scan or an x-ray, particularly if they suspect mesothelioma is also present.

COPD vs Mesothelioma – Treatment

There is currently no cure for COPD. However, most patients are quite responsive to treatment that is designed to improve their quality of life. Additionally, it helps to slow down the damage that is done to the lungs. Treatment options include:

  • Lifestyle changes. Smokers must quit straightaway, and they must also avoid secondhand smoke and other fumes. Furthermore, they should eat a healthy, nutritious, and balanced diet. Additionally, they should engage in a fitness program that is designed for them and does not put too much strain on them.
  • Medication. Bronchodilators (inhalers) work very well. In more advanced stages, steroids may also be prescribed. Flu and pneumonia vaccines are recommended, as well as preventative antibiotic treatment.
  • Oxygen therapy. This helps to provide the blood with more oxygen. It is usually delivered through a face mask or nasal prongs. In early stages, using oxygen a few times per day is sufficient, but more advanced cases will need constant oxygen support.
  • Surgery. Bullectomies have been proven to be quite successful, whereby some of the lungs’ spaces (bullae), which are created when the sac walls are destroyed, are removed. A lung transplant may also be offered.

The treatment for mesothelioma depends mainly on the stage in which the cancer is. In most cases, it is already quite advanced, and the only possible treatment option is palliative care, which is designed to increase people’s quality of life. If caught early enough, however, some treatment options do exist, including:

  • Surgery. This is only available in very early stages and is designed to take some of the affected tissue out, thereby reducing the chances of the cancer spreading. Surgery may also be used to reduce fluids in the lungs.
  • Chemotherapy. This helps to slow down the growth of cancer cells and has been shown to be quite effective in treating mesothelioma.
  • Radiotherapy. This treatment is commonly offered in all cancer patients. It is designed to stop the growth of cancerous cells, and even make them smaller.
  • Clinical trials. Because there is currently no cure for mesothelioma and it is believed that incidences of mesothelioma have not peaked yet, a lot of clinical trials are taking place into the condition. People who have the cancer are offered the chance to take part in these trials, thereby perhaps paving the way for the successful treatment for other people.

COPD vs Mesothelioma – Prognosis

The prognosis of COPD depends on the severity of the disease. However, most people can expect to live between 12 and 18 years after diagnosis.

The prognosis with mesothelioma is incredibly poor. If caught early, people may live around five years. However, it is often not caught until the condition is much more advanced. As such, the average life expectancy is just 12 to 18 months.

COPD vs Mesothelioma – Correlation

There are some significant correlations between the two conditions. Both can be caused by exposure to irritants in the workplace. Asbestos has been used in many different industries and this may have led to the rise in COPD cases as well. This is particularly true because the dangers of smoking were not known in those days either. We now know that those who have placed themselves at risk of mesothelioma are also at an increased risk of developing COPD.

In Sweden, some 316,729 construction workers were studied. What they found was that those participants who had COPD were two and a half times more likely to die from the condition if they had also been exposed to asbestos. In fact, even those who had never smoked, and hence had a very low risk of developing COPD, were more likely to develop it and more likely to die from it. A second study was published in 2011 in the Environmental Health Journal. This found that, around the globe, some 3,804,000 years of healthy life were lost in a single year due to COPD from occupational exposure, as well as 375,000 deaths.

Misdiagnosis is, unfortunately, very common. Mesothelioma is an incredibly rare condition, which is why many people who present with symptoms are generally diagnosed with COPD. If it is mesothelioma, however, this diagnosis could be a death sentence. Mesothelioma is very difficult to treat, and every day that is lost means the disease progresses further and becomes even less responsive to treatment. Hence, the official recommendation is that if people are diagnosed with COPD, and particularly if they have reason to believe they were ever exposed to asbestos, they should seek a second, or even a third opinion to rule out mesothelioma.