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Researchers have discovered significant similarities between breast cancer and mesothelioma, including diagnostic markers, symptoms, and treatments that slow tumor growth. There may even be a connection between breast cancer and asbestos, a dangerous mineral linked to mesothelioma.
Breast Cancer, Causes, and Risk Factors
After skin cancer, breast cancer is the second most common cancer type in American women. Symptoms of breast cancer include lumps, feeling of thickened tissue in the breast, inverted nipple, and changes to the skin of the breast.
The exact cause of breast cancer is unknown and may be complex and individualized. Cells in the breast tissue grow abnormally, dividing more rapidly to form a tumor. Why this happens is not understood. There are many well-defined risk factors for breast cancer. Asbestos exposure is one of these factors.
Well-known risk factors for breast cancer include:
- Specific genes
- Family health history
- Never being pregnant
- Radiation exposure
- Hormone therapy for menopause
- Alcohol consumption
Can Breast Cancer Be Caused by Asbestos Exposure?
There is some evidence that asbestos could be a contributing cause of breast cancer in some women. Studies researching a link between breast cancer and asbestos exposure have been inconclusive; however, there is significant evidence of a link to make a compelling case.
In a 2009 Australian study, nearly 3,000 women participated from a town that was home to an asbestos manufacturing company until 1966. The researchers compared these women to the general population. They found that ovarian and cervical cancer rates were higher in those living near the factory. However, breast cancer rates did not vary.
In a similar UK study, results were different. In this study, researchers found a slightly increased incidence of breast cancer in women who lived near asbestos manufacturing. Another British study found that women with asbestos fibers in their lungs were more likely to have breast cancer.
How asbestos contributes to breast cancer is not understood. Asbestos exposure causes mesothelioma and lung cancer after fibers are inhaled and become lodged in human tissue.
Asbestos fibers may move through the lymphatic fluid to the chest and breast tissue, potentially contributing to the development of breast cancer. Another hypothesis is that fibers pierce lung and pleural tissue and migrate into the chest wall.
Can Mesothelioma Spread to the Breast?
Metastasis occurs in the late stages of mesothelioma when cancer spreads to other tissues and organs. Common sites of metastasis include the lungs, adrenal glands, kidneys, and liver.
It is rare for mesothelioma to metastasize to the breast tissue; however, it is possible. When a woman has symptoms of breast cancer, there is a possibility that the cancer actually originated in pleural tissue.
Mistaking Mesothelioma for Breast Cancer
Mesothelioma is notoriously difficult to diagnose. One main issue in diagnosis is its similarities to more common cancers like breast cancer.
This is problematic because diagnosis directs treatment. With an incorrect diagnosis, a patient will receive treatment for a cancer she does not have rather than the cancer that may actually be killing her.
One example of mistaking mesothelioma for breast cancer was reported in the medical literature; a woman with metastatic mesothelioma was misdiagnosed as breast cancer.
This case study highlights that misidentifying mesothelioma as breast cancer may be more common than doctors realize. A woman may be diagnosed with breast cancer and undergo treatment without being given a diagnosis of mesothelioma. The symptoms of pleural mesothelioma, including chest pain, may be mistaken for symptoms of breast cancer or the side effects of treatment.
Even when a biopsy is done, pathologists may miss signs that cancer cells are mesothelioma. This is due to a high degree of overlap between breast cancer cells and mesothelioma cells in terms of cell structure, organization, and immunohistochemical markers.
When Breast Cancer Treatment Causes Mesothelioma
Researchers have reported cases of patients developing mesothelioma after being treated for breast cancer. It is rare, but radiation to shrink tumors in the breast has been shown to cause mesothelioma. Radiation therapy uses a high-energy beam aimed at tumors to kill cancer cells. As a side effect, radiation also kills healthy human cells.
Radiation can also mutate DNA in healthy cells, causing them to become malignant. To treat a breast tumor, radiation must penetrate the skin and chest cavity, including the pleura.
In rare cases, this exposure causes damage that leads to additional cancer, including cancer of the pleura or malignant mesothelioma.
Breast Cancer Treatment for Mesothelioma
Researchers who discovered mesothelioma could be misdiagnosed as breast cancer extended their research to see if breast cancer treatment could help battle mesothelioma.
The specific treatment is a drug called aromasin. Aromasin blocks the action of an enzyme called aromatase. In turn, a reduction in the hormone estrogen is triggered, slowing tumor growth. Aromasin has been used to treat breast cancer with some success and is generally well tolerated.
Researchers used aromasin in laboratory mice with mesothelioma and found the drug slowed the growth of cancer cells. Combined with a chemotherapy drug, aromasin treatment significantly reduced the sizes of mesothelioma tumors in the lab animals.
Similarities in cells of both types of cancers could be responsible, explaining why the drug worked for breast cancer and mesothelioma.
Reducing Risk of Breast Cancer
You cannot necessarily prevent breast cancer, but you can manage controllable risk factors. Managing risk factors will lower your risk of developing breast cancer.
- Lower your intake of alcohol.
- Increase physical activity level.
- Stay at a healthy weight.
- Eat a healthy diet.
- If you have a baby, breastfeed your child if possible.
- Avoid or limit hormone therapy.
Both breast cancer and mesothelioma are terrible diagnoses to receive. Treatment is challenging and may cause more side effects than the cancer itself. Prognoses are difficult and may not offer much hope for patients. Research suggests these types of cancer may have similarities and means there is potential to develop better diagnostic techniques and treatments for patients struggling with these types of cancer.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by Anne Courtney, AOCNP, DNP
Anne Courtney has a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and is an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner. She has years of oncology experience working with patients with malignant mesothelioma, as well as other types of cancer. Dr. Courtney currently works at University of Texas LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes.