Asbestos is a mineral that has been used for centuries. Once highly prized for its strength and its ability to withstand both heat and fire, it has fallen far out of favor in recent years after having been found to be a highly toxic carcinogen. Asbestos breaks down easily into tiny fibers that can be inhaled or ingested into the body, where it can wreak havoc and cause a number of types of asbestos cancers and other diseases.
The type of cancer that is most frequently associated with asbestos is mesothelioma, but there are other conditions that are also directly attributable to exposure to mesothelioma. Asbestos can cause lung cancer, and it has also been associated to an increased risk of several other types of cancer. In fact, the World Health Organization has identified asbestos as the cause of nearly half of all work-related cancers.
How Do Asbestos Cancers Form?
Asbestos is a material that is extremely strong when it is used in industrial or construction settings, but when it is exposed to the elements or it is being processed it easily breaks down into tiny particles. These particles appear dust-like, but are actually shaped like long needles that are pointy and sharp on both ends. Those who are exposed to asbestos can easily inhale these particles or ingest them, particularly when they have been disturbed and are floating in the air as is often the case in industrial settings.
Once asbestos fibers become embedded in the cells of the body, they begin to do damage. They generally cause cell death wherever they have lodged, and then cause mutations in the adjacent cells that grow into cancerous tumors. Asbestos cancers are most frequently found in the respiratory system, including the lungs, trachea or bronchus), though they can also be found in the digestive organs and the peritoneal cavity. In rare cases cancer from asbestos may occur in the lining of the heart or testicles.
Asbestos Cancer Risk Factors
The number one risk factor for these types of cancer is prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers. There are other risk factors, though, and these can increase the risk of developing an asbestos cancer even more. It is important to remember that these factors are not causative, though it is well known that smoking can cause lung cancer. In the case of lung cancer, when smoking or radon exposure is combined with exposure to asbestos the risk of being diagnosed is greatly increased.
Smoking also increases the risks of developing mesothelioma. The degree of exposure is also important in determining risk of any type of asbestos cancer. The greater the amount of fibers a person is exposed to, the greater the risk. The longer the period of exposure to asbestos is, the greater the risk of having cancer. Someone who worked in an environment with asbestos for 30 years has a much greater risk than someone exposed just once or twice.
Types of Asbestos Cancers and Asbestos-Related Diseases
- Mesothelioma — Mesothelioma most often associated with asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma is extremely rare, only appearing in approximately 2,500 Americans each year. It forms as a result of ingesting or inhaling asbestos fibers, which become embedded in the cells of the lining of the lungs or abdominal cavity. This lining is known as the mesothelium. In extremely rare cases mesothelioma can strike the cavity in which the heart or testicles lie. Mesothelioma is almost always incurable and considered to be fatal. This is because it is aggressive and difficult to diagnose and treat. Most people are not diagnosed and treated until it is in the later stages.
- Lung Cancer — Unlike mesothelioma, lung cancer is an extremely common form of cancer, and is the second most common in the United States. The number of lung cancer cases that are estimated to have been caused by exposure to asbestos is between 5,000 and 10,000; smoking greatly increases the risk. Exposure to asbestos can also trigger lung cancer and for people exposed to asbestos mesothelioma may be misdiagnosed as cancer of the lungs.
- Other Cancers — Though the incidence of other cancers arising following exposure to asbestos is not as well documented and is still being researched, scientists are exploring the association between asbestos exposure and cancers of the larynx, the gastrointestinal tract, the prostate, the gallbladder, the kidneys and breast and colorectal cancers. Asbestos has also been linked to Hodgkin’s and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, ovarian cancer and leukemia.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Lung cancer and mesothelioma are overwhelmingly the most common types of cancer caused by asbestos. They can cause symptoms like shortness of breath, chest pains, trouble breathing, a persistent cough, and lumps under the skin of the chest. These symptoms can indicate either lung cancer or mesothelioma, so it is challenging to make an accurate diagnosis.
After recognizing symptoms, imaging scans can confirm that there are tumors in or around the lungs and lining of the lungs. From there, a biopsy to remove cells from the tumors can help make a better diagnosis. Pathologists can examine the cells, and with some accuracy, tell if they are the result of mesothelioma or lung cancer. Even looking at the cells is not perfectly accurate, as mesothelioma cells look similar to lung cancer cells. Because the latter is more common, mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed initially.
Unfortunately for many people getting a diagnosis of cancer caused by asbestos, treatment is not going to be curative. Mesothelioma especially is often in the later stages by the time it is diagnosed. It is aggressive and spreads quickly, making treatment challenging. Treatments for asbestos cancers may include any combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. In early stages the goal may be to try to cure the cancer, but once it is more advanced treatment is mostly used to prolong life and make patients more comfortable.
Asbestos Exposure, Asbestosis, and other Health Risks
In addition to the risks of cancer, exposure to asbestos also greatly increases the risk of being diagnosed with an inflammatory lung condition known as asbestosis. The symptoms of asbestosis include coughing and shortness of breath, and the illness causes permanent damage to the lungs. It also is associated with a number of other illnesses of the lungs and pleura, including pleural plaques, pleural thickening and pleural effusions, which can have a significant impact on quality of life.
Risk of Asbestos Cancer and Other Asbestos-Related Illnesses
In the majority of cases of asbestos-related illnesses and asbestos cancer, the victim has been exposed to asbestos from their work environment, though there are many cases of environmental exposure and secondary asbestos exposure being a danger as well. Anybody who is aware of having been exposed to asbestos at any point in their lives should notify their physician of this history so that they can be on the lookout for symptoms of asbestos-related disease.
Many people who were diagnosed with asbestos-related cancers decided to take legal action against an employer or a company that made the asbestos-containing materials they worked with for decades. The vast majority of asbestos cancer cases are related to workplace exposure and often a company can be found negligible. Lawsuits, settlements, and trust funds have helped many sick people get justice and compensation.
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