Written By: Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RDN,
Last modified: July 9, 2021

How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?

Asbestos is a unique mineral that can be pulled apart into flexible fibers. When a person inhales or swallows microscopic asbestos fibers, the body often cannot break down or remove them. The fibers become stuck within sensitive tissue around the lungs or abdomen.

Over many years, the fibers cause irritation and inflammation that damage cells and DNA. Genetic changes resulting from damaged DNA can lead to abnormal cell growth and cancer. Asbestos cancer is any malignancy asbestos exposure has caused, including mesothelioma and lung cancer.

How asbestos develops into different types of cancer

Occupational exposure from many blue-collar professions is the leading cause of asbestos-related diseases. According to the World Health Organization, asbestos causes half of all occupational cancer deaths. Secondhand and environmental asbestos exposure can cause cancer as well.

Symptoms and Diagnosis of Asbestos-Related Cancers

Mesothelioma and other cancers from asbestos exposure often take many years to develop. The earliest symptoms can mimic more common respiratory or abdominal cancers. Confirming asbestos-related cancer typically requires a mesothelioma specialist.

Symptoms of Asbestos Cancer

People with a history of asbestos exposure should seek regular health screenings. They should pay special attention to the following signs, which may signal cancer:

  • Respiratory System Symptoms: Shortness of breath, coughing and chest pain are symptoms of pleural mesothelioma, pericardial mesothelioma and lung cancer.
  • Digestive System Symptoms: Swelling and pain, digestion issues, changes in bowel habits and nausea are symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma, stomach cancer, colon cancer and ovarian cancer.
  • Reproductive System Symptoms: Menstrual changes, fatigue, back pain and pain during sex can be symptoms of ovarian cancer.
  • Throat Symptoms: A chronic sore throat, persistent hoarseness, feeling the need to clear your throat often and difficulty swallowing can signal laryngeal cancer and pleural mesothelioma.

The path to an asbestos-related cancer diagnosis can be different for everyone, but an earlier diagnosis allows for more treatment options with a more favorable prognosis and improved survival. 

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How Asbestos Cancers Are Diagnosed

Diagnosing asbestos cancer is a lengthy process. These tumors can be mistaken for other cancers and less severe conditions such as pneumonia or bronchitis. The details of every patient’s diagnosis may vary, but the order of events is generally the same.

  • Referral: If a primary care physician suspects a patient has signs of cancer, the patient will be referred to a cancer specialist.
  • Imaging Tests: X-rays, CT scans, MRIs and PET scans help doctors look inside the body for tumors or other signs of cancer, such as inflammation.
  • Blood Tests: Blood tests look for signs of cancer such as abnormal blood cell counts. They can also help determine if cancer treatment is effective.
  • Cancer Biopsies: Biopsies are tissue samples collected from a tumor. Pathologists use the results to determine cancer cell type and confirm a diagnosis of asbestos cancer, such as mesothelioma, lung cancer or ovarian cancer.

After a positive diagnosis from a biopsy, doctors treat mesothelioma and other forms of asbestos cancer with surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy or multimodal therapy, which is a combination of these options.

With chemotherapy, the specific drugs used vary depending on the disease site. Immunotherapy has a history of success in lung cancer, and in 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the treatment for mesothelioma. Clinical trials continue to identify new therapies for asbestos-related cancer. 

Once a patient is in active treatment, ongoing tests such as blood tests and imaging scans, plus physical evaluations, determine whether treatment is working or if it’s time to consider new options.

I hadn’t even heard of mesothelioma. That was the day that my life changed.
Tamron Little
14-year peritoneal mesothelioma survivor

Watch: Mesothelioma survivor Tamron Little talks with The Mesothelioma Center about her personal experience receiving her diagnosis.

Primary Types of Asbestos Cancer

The most recent report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer confirms asbestos causes four types of cancer: Mesothelioma, lung, laryngeal and ovarian.

Asbestos and cancer are most often associated with mesothelioma and lung cancer. However, there are four primary types of asbestos-related malignancies.

Primary Types of Asbestos Cancer
  • Mesothelioma cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Laryngeal cancer
  • Ovarian cancer

Doctors first documented the health hazards of asbestos exposure nearly a century ago. Unfortunately, asbestos industry executives suppressed and manipulated medical research and facts about asbestos cancer for decades. 

As a result, millions of people have suffered through avoidable asbestos-related cancers, irreversible respiratory damage and chronic pain in the chest and abdominal cavities. Over time, long periods of pain can cause emotional side effects such as stress, fear, anxiety and depression. A 2021 study in the Journal of Thoracic Disease reported that, when untreated, less than 5% of pleural mesothelioma patients survive for five years. The study noted that the World Health Organization estimated 107,000 global deaths in 2004 from malignant mesothelioma and asbestos-related diseases.

Throughout the past century, the U.S. military also used asbestos, causing mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases in thousands of veterans. With the help of an asbestos cancer attorney, eligible patients affected by cancer from asbestos have claimed compensation for their injuries and medical care.

Mesothelioma Cancer

Mesothelioma is the only type of cancer almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure. A 2021 research study discovered that 80% of patients with malignant pleural mesothelioma have a history of direct or indirect asbestos exposure. 

Mesothelioma forming on the outer edge of the lung

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. In rare cases, cancer develops in the tissue that surrounds the heart or testes.

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. 

The reported mesothelioma death rate increased from 2,479 in 1999 to 2,597 in 2015. Despite the decreases in known asbestos exposures, cases do not appear to be declining. This suggests there is ongoing inhalation exposure of asbestos fibers.

Lung Cancer

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.

Cancer forming on the air sacks inside the lung.

Most lung cancer cases trace back to smoking. However, the combination of smoking and asbestos exposure significantly increases the risk of developing lung cancer. In 2017, U.S. health care providers diagnosed more than 220,000 lung cancer cases.

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. 

The American Cancer Society estimates there were 526,510 lung cancer survivors in the U.S. in 2016. By 2026, the American Cancer Society expects that number to increase to 673,370.

Laryngeal Cancer

Larynx cancer, also known as voice box cancer, usually is linked to smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. However, inhaled asbestos fibers can also lodge in the voice box as they pass through the trachea, or windpipe, on the way to the lungs.

Cancer forming on the voice box inside the neck.

In 2021, researchers published a study in Modern Pathology analyzing six laryngeal cancer case studies of workers with a history of occupational asbestos exposure. The researchers discovered that half of the workers had chrysotile asbestos fibers near the tumor sites.  More than 13,000 cases of laryngeal cancer occurred in 2017, according to the American Cancer Society. A combination of smoking, heavy drinking and asbestos exposure increases a person’s laryngeal cancer risk significantly.

Ovarian Cancer

Health care providers diagnosed ovarian cancer in more than 22,000 American women in 2017. In some cases, a definitive cause is unknown. However, recent medical research has established asbestos exposure as one cause of ovarian cancer.

Cancer forming on the ovaries

The overall five-year survival rate for all stages of ovarian cancer is 48%. Patients diagnosed with localized disease have a five-year survival rate of 93%. This rate decreases to 31% in patients with late-stage cancer or distant metastasis. 

A 2020 study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine confirmed a definitive relationship between tremolite or anthophyllite asbestos and cosmetic talc products. The researchers found evidence of the toxic fibers in 80% of ovarian cancer cases caused by personal hygiene products made with asbestos-contaminated talcum powder. Court filings show Imerys, a major talc supplier for Johnson & Johnson, faced more than 14,000 claims in 2019 from women who alleged asbestos-contaminated talcum powder caused their ovarian cancer.

Mesothelioma Nutrition Guide from Asbestos.com
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Eating right and balancing your diet while undergoing mesothelioma treatment can help ease your symptoms.

Other Cancers Associated with Asbestos Exposure

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has identified other types of cancer strongly associated with asbestos exposure, but research is ongoing to determine if asbestos is the cause. 

Asbestos fibers most often lodge in lung tissue and the pleural lining of the lungs. They also migrate into organs and tissues in other areas of the body, leading researchers to study the connection between asbestos and many types of cancer.

Partial evidence has linked asbestos with these cancers, but there is not yet strong enough data to conclude asbestos definitively causes these diseases. Lifestyle factors may increase your risk of developing cancer after asbestos exposure. These include smoking, heavy alcohol use, poor dietary habits and poor physical fitness. 

Lifestyle behaviors don’t directly lead to mesothelioma, but poor habits may worsen overall health and prognosis. Smoking and alcohol use may also cause other types of cancer, such as lung or liver cancer.

Pharyngeal Cancer

The pharynx is the membrane-lined cavity behind the nose and mouth and connects them to the esophagus in the throat. Air passes through the pharynx and into the lungs. Food and water also go through this area before reaching the esophagus and stomach. 

A 2020 research report suggests that asbestos is a possible risk factor for cancers involving the upper airways. Inhaled or swallowed asbestos fibers can accumulate in the pharynx and may later cause pharyngeal cancer.

Pharyngeal cancer afflicted about 17,000 Americans in 2017. Although linked to asbestos exposure, the main risk factors are smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.

Stomach Cancer

About 28,000 Americans developed stomach cancer in 2017. Infection with Helicobacter pylori bacteria, smoking and a diet heavy in salt, cured meats and preservatives are the main risk factors.

An April 2020 scientific report discovered a positive association between occupational talc exposure and risk of stomach cancer. Talc without asbestos fibers did not present any significant risks during the study. Researchers have suggested asbestos-contaminated water may contribute to elevated risks of stomach and other gastrointestinal cancers. Industrial pollution or crumbling asbestos-cement pipes may contaminate water.

Colon Cancer

The International Agency for Research on Cancer reports a positive association between asbestos exposure and colorectal cancer. Many studies have specifically linked asbestos with cancer in the colon. There is less evidence linking asbestos to rectal cancer.

A 2020 study in the journal Industrial Health measured mortality ratios among asbestos production industries, including cement workers and textile workers. The study found statistically significant risks of colorectal cancer, confirming an association with asbestos exposure. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, a low-fiber diet and a sedentary lifestyle are important risk factors for colorectal cancer. A diet high in processed and red meats also increases risk. These factors and more are discussed at length in The Mesothelioma Center’s Guide to Cancer for Seniors.

Quick Fact
When the type of asbestos that workers were exposed to was “mixed asbestos” and the exposure level was “highly intense,” an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer was found.
Source: Industrial Health, 2020

Kidney Cancer

Kidney cancer is one of the 10 most common cancers in the U.S. Experts have linked kidney cancer to heavy metals, herbicides and industrial chemical occupational exposures. Recent studies suggest a potential link to asbestos exposure as well.

In 2020, researchers published a case report of a 67-year-old man with a history of kidney disease and occupational asbestos exposure. The authors suggest that providers consider a kidney biopsy for patients with existing asbestos-related illness and concurrent renal disease. 

Other risk factors for kidney cancer include smoking, obesity, certain medications and advanced kidney disease. More than 60,000 Americans were diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2017.

Esophageal Cancer

About 17,000 cases of esophageal cancer occurred in the U.S. in 2017. This disease arises in the tube that carries food from the mouth and throat into the stomach.

Like pharyngeal cancer, experts suspect asbestos fibers can become trapped in the upper digestive tract and lead to cancer. Esophageal and other head and neck cancers are some of the deadliest cancers that get the least attention.

The main risk factors for esophageal cancer include smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, obesity and acid reflux disease. Some experts have uncovered a link to asbestos exposure as well.

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis in the U.S., excluding skin cancer. It affected more than 255,000 Americans in 2017.

Research has not yet uncovered a significant link between breast cancer and asbestos exposure. However, current evidence suggests that other sources of toxic microscopic particles may cause breast cancer or contribute to metastatic disease. 

Breast cancer risk factors include family history, obesity, excessive alcohol consumption, poor physical fitness and certain hormone-based medications and therapies.

Did You Know?
A Finnish study reported that women exposed to asbestos were 1.3 times more likely to develop postmenopausal breast cancer than the general population.
Source: American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 1999

Prostate Cancer

Prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer in men, afflicting more than 160,000 Americans in 2017. Little is known about its causes, though family history and older age are the main risk factors identified to date.

In a 2020 review of 33 scientific studies, the authors reported increased prostate cancer risk after asbestos exposure. The review found that respiratory inhalation of asbestos fibers during occupational or environmental exposure directly correlated with an increased risk of prostate cancer.  

Other risk factors include advanced age and family history. A diet high in fat and low in fiber, vegetables and fruit may also increase prostate cancer risk.

Leukemia

Leukemias are diagnosed in more than 60,000 Americans each year. These cancers develop in the bone marrow and blood. Doctors do not yet have a clear understanding of what causes them.

A 2012 study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine compared populations of adults exposed to asbestos as children. The results indicated an increased rate of leukemia compared with the general population.   Although a few case studies have suggested a link between asbestos exposure and leukemia, the medical evidence for this connection is not strong.

Bile Duct Cancer

In 2009, a study reported an increased rate of bile duct cancer among people with a history of asbestos exposure.

Bile ducts connect the gallbladder to the liver and small intestines. They deliver enzymes necessary for digestion. Research shows asbestos fibers can become trapped in these tiny ducts.

An intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma is a type of bile duct cancer that forms within the liver. In a 2020 study published in the journal Cells, 40% of ICC patients reported asbestos exposure as their only risk factor.

In another 2020 study published in Gastroenterology, researchers stated that enough evidence exists to list asbestos as a potential cause of intrahepatic bile duct cancer.

Asbestos Cancer Treatment

There is a different standard of treatment for each type of asbestos cancer. In addition, what works well for one patient may not be effective for another. A doctor who specializes in mesothelioma and other asbestos cancers will evaluate the patient’s overall health and medical history before developing a treatment plan.

Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are the primary treatment options for asbestos cancer. Surgery for mesothelioma is most effective in early-stage or peritoneal disease. Mesothelioma chemotherapy can help prevent cancer growth or recurrence. 

In most cases, a mesothelioma specialist will develop a multimodal treatment plan that includes several approaches. An asbestos cancer diagnosis can also be expensive since many therapies are involved. However, there are several financial assistance options available for eligible patients. 

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Financial Aid for Cancer Patients

Because of the asbestos industry’s negligence and responsibility for causing asbestos cancers, mesothelioma lawyers have helped patients secure many types of compensation for asbestos exposure. Legal options include personal injury claims, which can be filed by anyone diagnosed with mesothelioma, and wrongful death claims, which are filed by loved ones after a mesothelioma death. 

Many mesothelioma defendants decide to settle cases out of court. An asbestos law firm can help determine if the settlement will be more beneficial compared to a jury trial. Many companies have also established trust funds to cover legal claims filed against them. 

The added costs of a cancer diagnosis can be difficult for families to manage, but additional help is available for those needing assistance. Financial aid can help cover the high cost of cancer treatment, transportation, lodging, lost wages and caregiving expenses. The Mesothelioma Center offers a free Financial Aid for Cancer Patients Guide, which provides more than 40 resources for patients, from help in funding medication and treatment to support for low-income families and veterans.

Common Questions About Asbestos-Related Cancer

I was diagnosed with asbestos-related cancer: What do I need to know?
  • Your doctor may order additional tests to determine whether to treat your mesothelioma with chemotherapy, surgery, radiation or a combination of therapies.
  • You may be eligible for a clinical trial and a new type of treatment.
  • Learn all the facts, so you can make more informed decisions.
  • Build a strong support network and seek out other cancer patients who can understand your situation.
How do I find a doctor who treats asbestos-related cancer?

You can speak with a Patient Advocate to receive help finding a mesothelioma doctor. These specialists give you the best chance at extended survival.

Is compensation available for asbestos-related cancer?

Compensation is available to people diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. This money can help patients cover treatment costs, travel costs and other expenses.


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