Key Facts About Asbestos Cancer
  • About 4% of lung cancer cases stem from asbestos exposure.
  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer confirmed in 2009 that asbestos exposure causes ovarian cancer.
  • Research shows that asbestos exposure increases the risk of laryngeal cancer around 40%.
  • Asbestos is the main cause of mesothelioma, accounting for more than 80% of mesothelioma cases.

How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?

Asbestos fibers cause cancer when you inhale or ingest them. They can become stuck within sensitive tissue around your lungs or abdomen, causing inflammation and cell damage over many years. 

As the fibers damage DNA over time, the genetic changes lead to abnormal cell growth and cancer. Exposure to asbestos causes half of all occupational cancer deaths.

How asbestos develops into different types of cancer
Asbestos can enter the body through the respiratory or digestive system and develop into cancer.

Occupational exposure from many blue-collar professions is the leading cause of asbestos-related diseases. The U.S. military has used asbestos throughout the past century, causing asbestos cancer in thousands of veterans.

Asbestos can also contaminate products that contain other minerals such as talc. The presence of asbestos in talc increases your risk of developing various cancers, including ovarian cancer and mesothelioma.

When asbestos fibers are trapped in the body for long periods of time, they damage the cells and healthy tissue. The DNA within those cells becomes broken down and damaged over time and that’s what leads to the formation of abnormal cells and cancer cells.

Types of Asbestos Cancer

Asbestos is known to cause mesothelioma, lung cancer, laryngeal cancer and ovarian cancer. Mesothelioma and lung cancer are the most frequently diagnosed. Most types of mesothelioma occur 20 to 60 years after the initial asbestos exposure.


The number of people in the U.S. exposed to asbestos The Mesothelioma Center at has helped since 2017.

As a comprehensive analysis published March 2024 on the global burden of occupational asbestos exposure reports, “Asbestos fibers are mainly inhaled with air, and have local carcinogenic effects on target organs (lungs, larynx, ovaries) and related serous membranes (pleura, pericardium, peritoneum, vaginal membranes), resulting in lung cancer, larynx cancer, ovarian cancer, pleura, and peritoneal mesothelioma.” The authors emphasized no amount of asbestos exposure is safe.

The authors also noted that asbestos-related ovarian cancer “has been designated as the first gynecological occupational disease in Germany.” It was also noted that “the risk of ovarian cancer was approximately doubled in females with occupational asbestos exposure.”

Laryngeal Cancer

Inhaled asbestos fibers can lodge in your voice box as they pass through your trachea, or windpipe, on the way to the lungs. A combination of smoking, heavy drinking and asbestos exposure significantly increases the risk of laryngeal cancer.

About 12,650 cases of laryngeal cancer will occur in 2024, according to the American Cancer Society. In 2021, researchers discovered that 50% of workers with a history of occupational asbestos exposure had chrysotile asbestos fibers near the tumor sites. 

Lung Cancer

Asbestos-related lung cancer kills twice as many Americans each year as mesothelioma. Asbestos exposure is the primary cause of about 4% of lung cancer cases. About 234,580 new cases of lung cancer associated with any cause will occur in 2024. 

Unlike mesothelioma, lung cancer develops inside your lungs. Combining tobacco and asbestos exposure significantly increases the risk of developing lung cancer, but not mesothelioma. About 63% of patients diagnosed with localized lung cancer live 5 years or more. Conversely, the 5-year survival is 7% for lung cancer patients with late-stage or distant metastatic disease. 

Mesothelioma Cancer

About 75% of mesothelioma cancers form in the protective lining of the lungs, known as the pleura. Approximately 20% of mesothelioma cases develop in the abdominal lining, known as the peritoneum. A recent research study discovered that 80% of pleural mesothelioma patients have a history of direct or indirect asbestos exposure. 

Another recent research paper noted an estimated 43,000 deaths occur globally every year from mesothelioma and asbestos-related diseases, or roughly 5 to 10 deaths every hour. The average life expectancy for mesothelioma patients is 12 to 21 months with treatment. 

Ovarian Cancer

Cancer forming on the ovaries
Diagram shows tumors forming on an ovary.

Ovarian cancer involves abnormal growth of cells within your ovaries. In 2024, approximately 19,680 women will receive a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer among women. It causes more deaths than other female reproductive cancers.

Recent medical research has established that asbestos exposure is one cause of ovarian cancer, which was first confirmed in 2009. A study found evidence of asbestos fibers in 80% of talcum powder product-related ovarian cancer cases.

Cancers Associated With or Possibly Linked to Asbestos

There is a correlation between asbestos exposure and other types of cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer and other groups are conducting ongoing research to determine if asbestos is a definitive cause of these cancers.

The IARC has identified 3 types of cancer “positively associated” with asbestos exposure: Pharyngeal, stomach and colon cancer. This means there is some evidence of a link but not strong enough data to conclude asbestos definitively causes these diseases.

Cancers Linked to Asbestos
  • Bile Duct Cancer: Intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma refers to bile duct cancer found within the liver. A recent study revealed 40% of patients with ICC cited asbestos exposure as their sole risk factor. With ICC rates and fatalities on the rise globally, a potential connection to asbestos exposure could explain this trend.
  • Breast Cancer: Studies on breast cancer and its correlation with asbestos haven’t found a significant link between them.
  • Colon Cancer: There is a positive association between asbestos exposure and colorectal cancer. A recent study found higher risks of colorectal cancer in cement workers and textile workers. Our Senior Guide to Cancer outlines other risk factors of colon cancer.
  • Esophageal Cancer: A 2021 study reported that exposure to asbestos, particularly chrysolite, showed a significant and positive association with esophageal cancer.
  • Kidney Cancer: While some studies have reported excess deaths from kidney cancer among asbestos-exposed workers, data from other studies is too inconclusive to draw an official correlation.
  • Leukemia: Some studies vaguely linked leukemia to occupational asbestos exposure, but the data is inconclusive.
  • Pharyngeal Cancer: The pharynx cavity behind the nose and mouth connects to the esophagus in the throat. A recent research report suggests that asbestos is a possible risk factor for causing pharyngeal cancer.
  • Prostate Cancer: Several studies have indicated a possible association between asbestos exposure and prostate cancer. For instance, a recent report concluded that there is enough evidence showing asbestos exposure heightens the risk of prostate cancer.
  • Stomach Cancer: Researchers have suggested that asbestos in water from cement pipes may cause gastrointestinal cancers. A recent report discovered a link between talc exposure and the risk of stomach cancer. The World Health Organization already associates gastrointestinal cancers with asbestos exposure, and numerous studies have reported increased incidence of the cancers in exposed populations.

Many risk factors for cancers that get the least attention involve exposure to toxic materials. Asbestos can damage sensitive organs throughout the body and eventually cause cancer. If you have experienced exposure or have a family history of cancer, inform your provider. 

Symptoms of Asbestos Cancer

The most common symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos cancers include breathing problems, digestive issues, fatigue, fever and pain. The earliest symptoms can mimic more common respiratory or abdominal cancers. Asbestos cancer symptoms differ depending on the location of your tumors. Notifying your doctors of symptoms is the best way to receive an early diagnosis. An early and accurate diagnosis can improve your survival and the options to treat mesothelioma and other cancers.

Common Asbestos Cancer Symptoms
  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Chest pain
  • Chronic sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Digestive issues
  • Nausea
  • Pain during sex
  • Persistent hoarseness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Vomiting

If you have a history of asbestos exposure, talk to your doctor about regular health screenings. They should pay special attention to signs that may signal cancer.

In addition to the physical effects of cancer, over time, long periods of pain can cause emotional symptoms as well. These can include stress, fear, anxiety and depression

Dr. Jacques Fontaine and Dr. Andrea Wolf
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Asbestos Cancer Treatment

Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are the primary treatment options for asbestos cancer. Treatment success varies, and what works well for one patient may be ineffective for another. 

The best route is to find a doctor specializing in mesothelioma and other asbestos cancers. They’ll evaluate your health and medical history to develop a treatment plan. A specialist often develops a multimodal treatment plan that includes several approaches.

Each type and stage of cancer requires a different treatment. For example, surgery is most effective in early-stage peritoneal disease. Chemotherapy can help prevent cancer growth or recurrence.

Treatment for asbestos cancer can incur high costs, including travel expenses to cancer centers. Clinical trials can offer a chance at free or low-cost emerging therapy. Our Financial Aid for Cancer Patients Guide also outlines a number of types of financial compensation.

Survivor Story
Survivor Story
Kim Madril Peritoneal Survivor

Nurse and Survivor: Overcoming Breast Cancer and Mesothelioma

Kim Madril’s asbestos exposure occurred as a teen in school classrooms. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, then 4 months later with pleural mesothelioma. She shared that there are key differences between each diagnosis. “There’s all kinds of support, organizations, etc. out there for breast cancer. Whereas mesothelioma is so rare. There’s not a lot out there,” she said.

Read Kim’s Story

Preventing Asbestos-Related Cancers

Asbestos manufacturers and companies that use asbestos products are responsible for preventing asbestos exposure among their employees and the general public. Regulations require employers to put safety measures in place to eliminate the threat of asbestos. 

If you work in an industry where asbestos is present, talk to your employer about proper safety protocols. Employers should provide protective equipment and safety training. 

Even with laws restricting use, people may still be exposed today. Firefighters, construction workers and military personnel can encounter asbestos in older buildings damaged in fires, renovations and demolition and combat. Wearing protective gear where asbestos may be disturbed is essential.

People exposed to asbestos 20 to 60 years ago may only be diagnosed with related cancers now. If you have a history of asbestos exposure, alert your doctor. Screening tests can detect early signs of asbestos cancer. 

If you’ve experienced an asbestos-related injury or illness, our Patient Advocates can help you find a specialist, file your VA-benefits claims and connect with an asbestos cancer attorney. An experienced lawyer can help you file an asbestos trust fund claim or lawsuit seeking compensation.

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