How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?

Asbestos causes cancer through inflammation and cell damage over many years. This unique mineral contains flexible fibers that can separate. The fibers become stuck within sensitive tissue around the lungs or abdomen if inhaled or ingested. As the fibers damage DNA over time, the genetic changes lead to abnormal cell growth and cancer. 

Asbestos cancers are any malignancy caused by asbestos exposure. 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. If you believe you’ve been exposed to asbestos, learn the symptoms of asbestos cancer and contact a health care professional. 

Types of Asbestos Cancer

Asbestos is known to cause mesothelioma, lung cancer, laryngeal cancer and ovarian cancer. Mesothelioma and lung cancer are the most commonly diagnosed. Most types of mesothelioma occur due to asbestos exposure.

Over time, long periods of pain can cause emotional side effects such as stress, fear, anxiety and depression. An asbestos cancer attorney can help patients affected by asbestos cancer claim compensation for their physical and emotional distress.

Mesothelioma Cancer

Mesothelioma forming on the outer edge of the lung
Diagram shows mesothelioma tumors on the lung’s lining.

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 2021 research study discovered that 80% of pleural mesothelioma patients have a history of direct or indirect asbestos exposure. 

A 2021 research paper noted that an estimated 43,000 deaths occur globally every year from mesothelioma and asbestos-related diseases, or roughly five to 10 deaths every hour. The average life expectancy for mesothelioma patients is 12 to 21 months with treatment. 

Lung Cancer

Cancer forming on the air sacks inside the lung.
Diagram shows tumors inside the affected lung.

Asbestos-related lung cancer kills twice as many Americans each year as mesothelioma. Unlike mesothelioma, lung cancer develops inside the lungs. Asbestos exposure is the primary cause of about 4% of lung cancer cases. Combining tobacco and asbestos exposure significantly increases the risk of developing lung cancer.

About 63% of patients diagnosed with localized lung cancer live five years or more. Conversely, the five-year survival is 7% for lung cancer patients with late-stage or distant metastatic disease. 

Laryngeal Cancer

Cancer forming on the voice box inside the neck.
Image shows tumors forming on the larynx.

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

More than 13,000 cases of laryngeal cancer occurred in 2017, according to the American Cancer Society. In 2021, researchers discovered that half of workers with a history of occupational asbestos exposure had chrysotile asbestos fibers near the tumor sites. 

Other Asbestos-Related Cancers

There is a correlation between asbestos exposure and other types of cancer. Research is ongoing to determine if asbestos is a definitive cause of these cancers.

  • Ovarian Cancer. Recent medical research has established that asbestos exposure is one cause of ovarian cancer. A 2020 study found evidence of asbestos fibers in 80% of ovarian cancer cases caused by talcum powder products.
  • Pharyngeal Cancer. The pharynx cavity behind the nose and mouth connects to the esophagus in the throat. A 2020 research report suggests that asbestos is a possible risk factor for causing pharyngeal cancer.
  • Stomach Cancer. Researchers have suggested that asbestos in water from cement pipes may cause gastrointestinal cancers. A 2020 report discovered a link between talc exposure and the risk of stomach cancer.
  • Colon Cancer. There is a positive association between asbestos exposure and colorectal cancer. A 2020 study found higher risks of colorectal cancer in cement workers and textile workers. Senior Guide to Cancer outlines other risk factors of colon cancer.

Recent research has linked asbestos to several other forms of cancer. These include:

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

Mesothelioma and other cancers from asbestos exposure often take many years to develop. The earliest symptoms can mimic more common respiratory or abdominal cancers. Symptoms common to most types of asbestos cancer include fatigue, pain and fever.

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

Respiratory and Throat Symptoms:
  • Chest pain
  • Chronic sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Persistent hoarseness
  • Shortness of breath
Digestive and Reproductive Symptoms:
  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Digestive issues
  • Nausea
  • Pain during sex
  • Vomiting

Asbestos cancer symptoms can differ for everyone based on the location of the 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.

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

Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are the primary treatment options for asbestos cancer. Diagnosis usually requires imaging scans, such as MRI or CT, and a biopsy. A biopsy confirms the cell type and other properties of your cancer. Each type of asbestos cancer requires a different treatment. 

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 will evaluate your health and medical history to develop a treatment plan.

Mesothelioma chemotherapy can help prevent cancer growth or recurrence. Surgery is most effective in early-stage or peritoneal disease. A specialist often develops a multimodal treatment plan that includes several approaches. 

An asbestos cancer diagnosis can be expensive since many therapies are involved. Legal compensation can cover the high cost of cancer treatment, travel and lost wages. Clinical trials offer a chance at an emerging therapy covered by the sponsor. The Financial Aid for Cancer Patients Guide outlines the many types of asbestos compensation for victims.

Preventing Asbestos-Related Cancers

Avoiding asbestos exposure is the best way to prevent asbestos cancer. Airborne fibers can become lodged in the lungs, causing inflammation and scarring. These cancers have a long latency period. Symptoms may not manifest until decades after exposure. 

Asbestos cancer symptoms vary depending on the type and stage of the disease. The most common symptoms are cough, chest pain, fatigue and weight loss. Treatments often include surgery and chemotherapy. Palliative care can help manage symptoms and improve quality of life.

If you work in an industry where asbestos is present, follow proper safety protocols. Wear protective equipment such as masks and respirators. Hire a licensed professional to handle any materials that may contain asbestos. Avoid renovating or demolishing older buildings on your own.

If you have a history of asbestos exposure, track your health. Report any symptoms to your doctor as soon as possible. Screening tests like chest X-rays and CT scans can detect early signs of asbestos cancer. It is crucial to inform your health care provider of your asbestos exposure history so they can be aware of potential risks and provide appropriate care.