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Asbestos Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the second most common type of cancer in all people, men and women. It is the leading cause of cancer deaths in people in the U.S. Lung cancer is predicted to account for 27 percent of all cancer deaths in 2016, a total of 158,080 people. Lung cancer comes in a few different forms, including small cell, non-small cell, and carcinoid lung cancers.

Smoking is overwhelmingly the most common cause and risk factor for lung cancer, accounting for about 90 percent of cases. However, asbestos exposure is also an important cause of this type of cancer. Smoking combined with asbestos exposure increases the risk of developing lung cancer significantly. The prognosis for asbestos-caused lung cancer is not usually good, but early diagnosis and treatment are important in increasing life expectancy.

Mesothelioma vs. Lung Cancer

Asbestos exposure puts people at risk for both of these types of cancer and mesothelioma is often mistaken for lung cancer. Mesothelioma is much rarer and asbestos exposure is the biggest risk factor for it. While lung cancer begins with cancerous cells in the lung tissue, mesothelioma develops in the pleura, a layer of tissue separate from the lungs, but surrounding these organs.

Mesothelioma is often mistaken for lung cancer because the latter is so much more common. Mesothelioma is rare, which means that doctors don’t often think to diagnose it until they have ruled out other illnesses. The symptoms of these two types of cancers are similar: chest pains, coughing, and difficulty breathing. The cells of the cancer itself are even similar, so that when examining tissue from a biopsy it is easy to misdiagnose mesothelioma as lung cancer.

Types of Lung Cancer

Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type of lung cancer, accounting for about 85 percent of cases. There are several subtypes of this, including adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and large cell carcinoma. For this type of cancer in the earlier stages, five year survival rates are between 30 and 50 percent. For more advanced stages the survival rate drops to five percent or less.

Small cell lung cancer makes up 10 to 15 percent of lung cancer diagnoses. These types of lung cancer tend to spread more quickly and aggressively. Small cell cancer five year survival rates are lower than for non-small cell lung cancer. For early stages the survival rate is between 20 and 30 percent, while it is only two percent or less for later stages.

The rarest type of lung cancer, accounting for less than five percent of cases, is called a lung carcinoid tumor. This kind of tumor grows slowly and does not spread as much as other types of lung cancer. This means that survival rates are much higher; they are as high as 93 percent for early stage cases and 57 percent for later stages after five years.

Lung Cancer Symptoms

Lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure causes symptoms similar to lung cancer caused by other factors. These include a persistent cough, changes in an already existing cough, shortness of breath, coughing up blood, chest pains, hoarseness, wheezing when breathing, unexplained weight loss, headaches, and bone pain.


A diagnosis for lung cancer begins with a physical exam and a description of symptoms. It is also important for patients who know they have been exposed to asbestos to inform the doctor of this fact. After a physical exam, imaging screenings will be used to examine the lungs and chest cavity. X-rays may be used, but CT scans give a better picture of the lungs and any tumors.

A biopsy is usually the next step if an image shows some kind of abnormal tissue. A biopsy removes tissue for testing. Looking at that sample under the microscope, a pathologist can determine if the cells are cancerous or benign. If they are cancerous it must then be determined if the cells are representative of lung cancer or mesothelioma, which is not always straightforward. Once a diagnosis of lung cancer has been made, it must be staged according to the size of the tumor, the number of tumors, and how far the cancer has spread if at all.


Treatment is dependent on a solid diagnosis and staging. This information informs treatment and helps a medical team devise a strategy that will be most successful. Lung cancer is typically treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Targeted drug therapies may also be used to better target the lung cancer cells. For patients with very advanced lung cancer, treatment may be more focused on palliative care than curative.

Asbestosis and Lung Cancer

Asbestosis is an illness caused only by asbestos exposure. Inhaled fibers of asbestos lodge in lung tissue and cause irritation, and this damage can eventually turn into thickened scar tissue. This in turn results in symptoms like chest pains, a persistent dry cough, and shortness of breath. Asbestosis is not lung cancer, but research has shown that it is a consistent marker for lung cancer that has been caused by asbestos.

Not all lung cancers are caused by exposure to asbestos. There are numerous potential risk factors and causes, and to diagnose and treat the cancer in the best way, knowing which factor is the leading cause is useful. Asbestosis does not seem to cause lung cancer, but its presence indicates that a person’s lung cancer was likely caused by asbestos exposure. The connection is so strong that even when a person also smoked, the presence of asbestos usually pinpoints the cause of the lung cancer as asbestos.

The Helsinki Criteria

While recent research shows that asbestosis is a clear factor that indicates lung cancer has been caused by asbestos exposure, it is not the only factor. There is a set of factors called the Helsinki criteria that doctors may use to determine if asbestos caused lung cancer in a patient. One criterion is the latency period. To have been caused by asbestos lung cancer must not have developed for at least a decade after exposure.

Another criterion is simply the presence of asbestos fibers in the lungs. Another criterion is the amount of exposure to asbestos a person has experienced. Asbestosis is also a factor included in this set of criteria. Using these criteria, doctors must find that a patient with lung cancer has at least two of the factors to attribute the cancer to asbestos exposure.

How Smoking Affects Asbestos Lung Cancer

Smoking has been seen in study after study to increase the risks of developing lung cancer, especially in people who have been exposed to asbestos. The combination of these two risk factors is particularly deadly; the combination of smoking and asbestos exposure puts a person at a greater risk for lung cancer than each individual risk factor added together. Quitting smoking reduces the risk of lung cancer in people who have been exposed to asbestos. Anyone who is or has been exposed to asbestos should not start smoking or should quit as quickly as possible.

If you have been exposed to asbestos, especially over a long period of time, it is important to understand the signs and symptoms of lung cancer. It is crucial to be screened and diagnosed as soon as possible to get the best prognosis. This is a deadly type of cancer and it is exacerbated by smoking. Treating lung cancer does not always cure it. Survival rates may be better than for mesothelioma, but early detection and treatment are still so important to giving you the best chances of surviving this illness.

Page edited by Dave Foster

Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.

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