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Asbestos is a mineral that has been used by humans for centuries. Once highly prized for its strength and ability to withstand both heat and fire, asbestos has fallen out of favor in recent years. Discoveries that the mineral is a highly toxic carcinogen eventually caused major concerns about its use.
Asbestos breaks down easily into tiny fibers. These tiny fibers can be inhaled or ingested into the body, where they can wreak havoc. Over time, these asbestos fibers can cause a number of cancers and other diseases.
The type of cancer most frequently associated with asbestos is mesothelioma. However, there are other conditions that are also directly attributable to exposure. Asbestos can cause lung cancer and has also been associated with increased risk of several other cancer types. 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 an extremely strong material, making it useful in industrial and construction settings. When exposed to the elements, as well as when it is being processed, asbestos easily breaks down into tiny particles.
These particles appear dust-like but are actually shaped like long needles. These tiny needles are sharp and pointed. When these sharp tiny fibers are disturbed, they easily become airborne. Once this happens workers can inhale or ingest them without even knowing it.
Once asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested, they become embedded in the cells of the body and cause tissue damage. Asbestos fibers generally cause cell death wherever they lodge. After cell death, asbestos fibers can cause mutations in adjacent cells, causing cancerous tumors to grow.
Asbestos cancers are most frequently found in the respiratory system, including the lungs, trachea or bronchus). However, these cancers can also be found in the digestive organs and peritoneal cavity, the throat, and the ovaries. 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 asbestos-related cancer is prolonged exposure to asbestos. There are other risk factors, however. It is important to understand these factors are not causative.
The degree of exposure is important in determining the 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 rarely exposed.
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 after 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 fatal. Aggressive and difficult to diagnose, mesothelioma may not be recognized until it is in later stages.
- Lung Cancer — Unlike mesothelioma, lung cancer is an extremely common form of cancer. In fact, it is the second most common in the United States. The number of lung cancer cases estimated to have been caused by asbestos exposure is between 5,000 and 10,000. Smoking also greatly increases the risk. For people exposed to asbestos, mesothelioma may be misdiagnosed as cancer of the lungs.
- Other Cancers — Though the incidence of other cancers arising from exposure to asbestos is not well documented, scientists are exploring the association between asbestos exposure. Suspected cancers include 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 the most common types of cancer associated with asbestos exposure. They 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 tumors in or around the lungs and lining of the lungs. From there, a biopsy to remove tumor cells can help make a diagnosis. Pathologists will examine the cells to determine if they are the result of mesothelioma or lung cancer.
Examining the cells is not perfectly accurate, however. Mesothelioma cells look similar to lung cancer cells, and because the latter is more common, mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed.
Unfortunately for many, treatment for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers is not curative. When diagnosed, mesothelioma is often in its later stages.
Mesothelioma is aggressive, spreading quickly and making treatment challenging. Treatments for asbestos cancers may include combinations of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. In early stages the goal may be to cure cancer, but once advanced, treatment is used to prolong life and make patients more comfortable.
According to the American Cancer Society, mesothelioma life expectancy depends on a number of factors, including age, the stage of cancer, where the cancer is located, gender, lifestyle choices, and the overall age of the patient.
On average, people with Stage 1 mesothelioma have a life expectancy of a little over 22 months, while those in Stage 2 have a life expectancy over a little over 20 months. At the early stages of the disease, patients are better qualified for multimodal treatment options.
During Stage 3, life expectancy decreases to around 17.9 months, while Stage 4 mesothelioma victims have an average life expectancy of 14.9 months.
Keep in mind that there have been cases in which patients greatly outlived the average life expectancy.
For instance, Paul Kraus, who tried a holistic approach to managing his peritoneal mesothelioma, has so far survived more than 20 years after his diagnosis, according to his book, “Surviving Mesothelioma and Other Cancers.”
Asbestos Exposure, Asbestosis, and Other Health Risks
In addition to the risks of cancer, exposure to asbestos also greatly increases the risk of an inflammatory lung condition known as asbestosis. The symptoms of asbestosis include coughing and shortness of breath. Asbestos 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. These conditions can have a significant impact on the quality of life.
Risk of Asbestos Cancer and Other Asbestos-Related Illnesses
In the majority of cases, the victim has been exposed to asbestos from the work environment. However, there are many cases of environmental exposure and secondary asbestos exposure also being a factor. Anybody exposed to asbestos at any point should notify their physician so they can be on the lookout for symptoms of asbestos-related disease.
Many people diagnosed with asbestos-related cancers decide to take legal action against an employer. They may also seek legal action against any company that made asbestos-containing materials they worked with for decades.
The majority of asbestos cases are related to workplace exposure. Often, a company can be found negligible. Lawsuits, settlements, and trust funds have helped many sick people get justice and compensation. If you think you may have a case, it is important to talk to a qualified lawyer to discuss your options.
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited byLuis Argote-Greene, M.D.
Luis Argote-Greene is an internationally recognized thoracic surgeon. He has trained and worked with some of the most prominently known thoracic surgeons in the United States and Mexico, including pioneering mesothelioma surgeon Dr. David Sugarbaker. He is professionally affiliated with University Hospitals (UH). His areas of interest and expertise are mesothelioma, mediastinal tumors, thoracic malignancies, lung cancer, lung transplantation, esophageal cancer, experimental surgery, and lung volume reduction. Dr. Argote-Greene has also done pioneering work with video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS), as well as robotic assisted minimally invasive surgery. He has taught the procedures to other surgeons both nationally and internationally.