Asbestos cancers are caused by the inhalation or ingestion of large amounts of microscopic asbestos fibers. While the term “asbestos cancer” most often refers to mesothelioma, a number of other cancers are linked to asbestos exposure.
Asbestos is a unique type of mineral that can be pulled apart into flexible fibers. When microscopic asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested, the body may never be able to dissolve or expel them. Over the span of many years, the fibers can cause genetic changes that can lead to asbestos cancer.
Lifestyle factors that may affect a person’s risk of developing cancer after asbestos exposure include smoking, chronic stress, poor dietary habits and poor physical fitness.
Most cases of asbestos cancer trace back to recurring occupational exposure, though secondhand and environmental exposure can cause cancer as well. According to the World Health Organization, approximately half of all occupational cancer deaths are caused by asbestos.
Some of the most common asbestos cancers include:
People with a history of asbestos exposure should seek regular health screenings and watch out for symptoms of asbestos cancer.
Shortness of breath, coughing and chest pain are symptoms of pleural mesothelioma, pericardial mesothelioma and lung cancer.
Abdominal swelling and pain, digestion issues, changes in bowel habits and nausea are symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma, stomach cancer, colon cancer and ovarian cancer.
Menstrual changes, fatigue, back pain and pain during sex can be additional symptoms of ovarian cancer.
Diagnosing an asbestos cancer can be a lengthy process. It often starts with a visit to a primary care physician to assess arising symptoms. Referral to a specialist will depend upon which part of the body is producing symptoms. Various medical tests and procedures are conducted to evaluate a person’s overall health and learn more about what may be causing symptoms.
Imaging tests like X-rays, CT and PET scans help doctors look inside the body for tumors. Blood tests look for other signs of cancer such as abnormal blood cell counts. Biopsies, which are samples of tissue collected in and around a tumor, help determine which kind of cancer is present.
These tests are standard when mesothelioma or lung cancer is suspected. Other asbestos cancers may involve unique testing. For example, pap smears screen for ovarian cancer and mammograms screen for breast cancer. A colonoscopy can detect signs of colon cancer and urine tests help to diagnose kidney cancer.
Mesothelioma and nearly all forms of asbestos cancer are treated with surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Experimental therapies, such as immunotherapy, are only being used in clinical trials on some cancers. Photodynamic therapy is approved for the treatment of lung cancer but not mesothelioma. Hormone therapy is used in the treatment of breast cancer but not mesothelioma or lung cancer. Chemotherapy may be used to treat all asbestos-related cancers, but the exact drugs used will vary depending upon the cancer being treated.
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According to a 2012 review published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), there is enough medical evidence to definitely state asbestos causes four types of cancer: Mesothelioma, lung cancer, laryngeal cancer and ovarian cancer.
In fact, doctors had already begun to document the health hazards of asbestos exposure almost a century earlier in the 1920s and 1930s. Unfortunately, asbestos-industry executives suppressed and manipulated medical research results for decades until there was finally too much evidence against asbestos to cover up.
Because of the asbestos industry’s negligence, thousands of lawsuits have now been filed by patients with asbestos cancer who are seeking compensation.
Yearly morbidity estimates for three primary asbestos cancers.
Mesothelioma is the only type of cancer that is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure. About 75 percent of mesotheliomas form in the pleura (lining of the lungs), and about 20 percent form in the peritoneum (lining of the abdomen). In rare cases, cancer develops in the lining of the heart or testes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more than 3,000 cases of mesothelioma were diagnosed in the U.S. each year between 2003 and 2008.
Asbestos-related lung cancer kills twice as many Americans each year as mesothelioma, making it the deadliest type of asbestos cancer. However, asbestos is the primary cause of only about 4 percent of lung cancer cases overall, reflecting the fact that tobacco-related lung cancer is the second-most-common cancer diagnosis in the United States. There will be more than 220,000 lung cancer cases diagnosed in the US in 2017. The combination of smoking and asbestos exposure creates an especially severe risk of cancer.
Cancer of the larynx, or voice box, is usually linked to smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. However, inhaled asbestos fibers can also lodge in the voice box on the way to the lungs. More than 13,000 cases of laryngeal cancer will occur in 2017, according to the American Cancer Society. While it is not a frequently occurring cancer, the combination of smoking, drinking and asbestos exposure increases the risk significantly.
Ovarian cancer will be diagnosed in more than 22,000 women in 2017. While its cause is unknown in many cases, medical research has established asbestos exposure can be a contributing cause.
Researchers are still debating how occupational or secondhand exposure to asbestos dust could cause ovarian cancer, but some cases have been linked to using personal hygiene products made from asbestos-contaminated talcum powder.
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In addition to the known asbestos cancers, the IARC identified three types of cancer “positively associated” with asbestos exposure, meaning there is some evidence of a link.
Pharyngeal cancer develops in the throat, between the mouth and the neck. It will occur in 17,000 Americans this year. Air passes through the pharynx on the way to the voice box, and food and water pass through on the way to the esophagus, so asbestos fibers can potentially accumulate in the pharynx whether they are inhaled or swallowed. As with laryngeal cancer, the main risk factors are smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.
Stomach cancer will be found in 28,000 Americans this year. Its incidence has been decreasing in recent years. Smoking and eating a diet heavy in salt and preservatives are two of the main risk factors, but many researchers have suggested asbestos-contaminated water as a cause of many cases of stomach cancer and other gastrointestinal cancers. Water can be contaminated by industrial pollution or degrading asbestos-cement pipes.
The IARC noted a positive association between asbestos exposure and colorectal cancer, but many studies have pointed to the colon specifically as a potential asbestos-cancer site. There is less evidence linking asbestos to rectal cancer. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, poor physical fitness and eating a diet high in red meats and processed meats are other risk factors for colon cancer.
Although asbestos fibers most often lodge in lung tissue and the lining around the lungs, they have been known to migrate into organs and tissues all around the body over time. For this reason, researchers have studied the connection between asbestos and many types of cancer.
Kidney cancer is one of the 10 most common types of cancer in the U.S., and it is already linked to occupational exposure to heavy metals, herbicides and industrial chemicals. Recent studies have provided evidence of a link to asbestos exposure as well. Other risk factors include smoking, obesity, certain medications and advanced kidney disease. More than 60,000 Americans will be diagnosed with kidney cancer this year.
About 17,000 cases of esophageal cancer will occur in 2017. This disease arises in the tube between the throat and the stomach. The main risk factors include smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, obesity and acid reflux disease, but recent research has suggested a link to asbestos exposure as well.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis in the U.S. and will be diagnosed in more than 255,000 Americans this year. Breast cancer risk factors include family history, obesity, excessive alcohol consumption, poor physical fitness and certain hormone-based medications and therapies. Research has not found a significant link between breast cancer and asbestos exposure.
Although prostate cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in men and will affect more than 160,000 men this year, little is known about its causes and risk factors. Research into the link between prostate cancer and asbestos exposure has been inconclusive.
Leukemias are diagnosed in more than 60,000 Americans each year. Leukemias are cancers of the bone marrow and blood, and doctors do not yet have a clear understanding of what causes them. Although a few case studies have suggested a possible link between asbestos exposure and leukemia, the medical evidence is very thin.
Karen Selby joined Asbestos.com in 2009. She is a registered nurse with a background in oncology and thoracic surgery and was the director of a tissue bank before becoming a Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center. Karen has assisted surgeons with thoracic surgeries such as lung resections, lung transplants, pneumonectomies, pleurectomies and wedge resections. She is also a member of the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators.
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