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Mesothelioma and smoking may be connected in individuals also exposed to asbestos. Smoking contributes to both lung cancer and asbestos-related mesothelioma and worsens symptoms in those already diagnosed with either cancer. With or without asbestos exposure or a diagnosis, quitting smoking or never smoking is the best thing anyone can do for their health.
The Health Effects of Smoking
According to the National Cancer Institute, smoking has an overall negative impact on human health and affects nearly every organ in the body. Smoking is the leading cause of several cancers, including lung, esophageal, kidney, throat, mouth, and bladder cancers. It is also the leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S.
Smoking contributes to and causes:
- Heart disease
- Macular degeneration
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (chronic bronchitis and emphysema)
Smoking worsens asthma, pneumonia, and other respiratory infections. It also increases a person’s risk of developing them.
Smoking also makes it more difficult to conceive; however, after conception, smoking during pregnancy increases the risks of birth defects, miscarriages, premature babies, and low birth weight.
Secondhand smoke also negatively affects the health of non-smokers as it causes lung cancer and increases the risks of heart disease and stroke. For children with parents who smoke, there is an increased risk for infections and asthma.
The Benefits of Quitting
When you quit smoking, there are immediate and long-term benefits:
- Quitting lowers blood pressure and heart rate, reduces carbon monoxide in the blood, and improves circulation.
- Once you quit smoking, you will also experience a reduction in coughing, phlegm production, and a heightened sense of smell and taste.
- Lung function begins to improve within a month or two of quitting.
- Quitting reduces the risk of cancer, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, just to name a few.
- Quitters are less likely to die from a disease related to smoking, especially those who quit before the age of forty.
- It’s never too late, though. Regardless of age, people who quit will see a significant increase in life expectancy.
For someone with an asbestos-related illness like mesothelioma, there are even more benefits to quitting smoking. Smoking exacerbates all symptoms of lung disease, so quitting will ease symptoms and allow you to breathe easier.
Smoking and Asbestos
Every inhalation on a cigarette introduces thousands of toxins into the lungs. Once inhaled, these toxins enter the circulatory system, lymphatic system and spread throughout the body.
Dried tobacco leaves are the main ingredient in cigarettes. Dried tobacco contains nicotine which is a psychoactive compound. Nicotine makes smoking so addictive and is one of the most harmful compounds in cigarette smoke.
Cigarettes also include additives for flavor, smell, and what marketers call smoothness. This complicated mixture of chemicals is toxic. Cigarette smoke contains harmful substances like formaldehyde, ammonia, lead, arsenic, hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, benzene, and even radioactive substances, like uranium and radon. These radioactive materials come from the soil used to grow tobacco.
Cigarettes even contained asbestos in the filters in one case. The company, Kent, had these cigarettes in circulation from 1952 to 1956. Cigarette companies marketed filters as making smoking safer, trapping harmful toxins before they entered the lungs. This claim was later proven false.
The Micronite filter developed for Kent cigarettes caused smokers to inhale an average of 170,000 particles of asbestos with two tiny puffs.
Smoking and Mesothelioma
Anyone who smoked Kent cigarettes when it used asbestos in its filters was unknowingly exposed to asbestos. As a result, they could have later developed mesothelioma. The connection between asbestos and mesothelioma is direct; however, even cigarettes without asbestos-containing filters can increase the risk of mesothelioma.
While there is no evidence that smoking itself contributes to mesothelioma, it is known that smoking worsens outcomes for cancer patients. Someone who continues to smoke after a cancer diagnosis is likely to die earlier than someone who quits.
Research suggests that cancer patients who quit at the time of diagnosis reduce the risk of dying of cancer by up to 40%. Quitting also lowers the risks of respiratory infections and recurrence if the cancer goes into remission.
Asbestos Lung Cancer and Smoking
While there is no direct connection between mesothelioma and smoking, there is a definite connection between smoking and lung cancer, including lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure.
Both asbestos and smoking, separately, can cause lung cancer, but together the effect is worse. Someone who smokes and is exposed to asbestos is at an increased risk of developing lung cancer compared to someone who experiences one or the other, but not both.
One study found that people who both smoke and have asbestos exposure are anywhere from thirty to fifty times more likely to develop lung cancer when compared to smokers who avoid asbestos exposure.
Another study found that among smokers who were exposed to asbestos, those with asbestosis (also caused by asbestos exposure) were more likely to develop lung cancer. This was in comparison to similar workers who had asbestosis but did not smoke.
Smoking and Other Asbestos-Related Illnesses
Despite whether or not smoking contributes to mesothelioma, there is plenty of evidence that smoking harms lung tissue. This tissue damage could increase a person’s potential for being harmed by asbestos.
Smoking weakens the lungs, making them more susceptible to damage from asbestos fibers. Smoking also decreases overall health, which could make a person more vulnerable to damage from asbestos.
Asbestosis is scarring of lung tissue because of damage caused by asbestos. Unlike mesothelioma or lung cancer, asbestosis is not malignant; however, it is progressive. The scarring, or fibrosis, gets worse over time, making breathing increasingly difficult.
Whether smoking increases the risk for asbestosis is not clear. One study suggests there may be a connection. Researchers found that between asbestos-exposed workers, those who smoked retained more asbestos fibers in their lungs.
Tools for Quitting
There are many reasons to quit smoking. People keep smoking despite the health risks because it is tough to quit. Nicotine is a highly addictive substance and changes pathways in the brain, making it almost impossible to quit without assistance.
If you want to stop smoking, talk to your doctor about medical treatment options. There are plenty of tools available to help you quit.
Some people find transitioning to an e-cigarette helps wean them from nicotine. The jury is still out on the safety of these devices and will require more research; however, they do not produce smoke like cigarettes.
There are also medications and nicotine replacements that can help you quit. These are available both over the counter and by doctor prescription. There are also apps and support groups for smokers looking to quit. Some people turn to hypnosis for help.
Many people were exposed to asbestos through lack of knowledge and suffered the consequences. In contrast, there is no lack of knowledge regarding the health risks associated with cigarette smoking. It exacerbates asbestos illnesses like mesothelioma and asbestosis. It even works with asbestos to cause lung cancer.
Whether you have been exposed to asbestos or not, if you have been diagnosed with an asbestos illness, quitting smoking is one of the most important things you can do for your health.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.