Asbestos cancers are caused by inhaling or swallowing microscopic asbestos fibers. The term “asbestos cancer” most often refers to mesothelioma, but several other malignancies are linked to asbestos exposure as well, including lung cancer, ovarian cancer and cancer of the voice box.
Asbestos is a unique type of mineral that can be pulled apart into flexible fibers. When you inhale or swallow microscopic asbestos fibers, your body may never be able to dissolve or expel them. Over many years, the fibers can cause genetic changes that can lead to cancer.
Lifestyle factors that increase your risk of developing cancer after asbestos exposure include smoking, chronic stress, poor dietary habits and poor physical fitness.
Most cases of asbestos-related disease trace back to occupational exposure. According to the World Health Organization, the toxic mineral causes approximately half of all occupational cancer deaths. Secondhand and environmental asbestos exposure can cause cancer as well.
People with a history of asbestos exposure should seek regular health screenings and watch out for the following signs:
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 is a lengthy process. The patient’s primary care physician must refer them to a specialist depending on which part of the body is affected. Doctors can treat mesothelioma and most other forms of asbestos cancer with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Imaging tests such as X-rays, CT scans 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 diseases involve their own tests, such as a pap smear for ovarian cancer or a colonoscopy for colon cancer.
Chemotherapy is the most common treatment for asbestos-related cancer, but the specific drugs vary depending on the disease site. Immunotherapy has been approved for some cancers and is being testing in clinical trials for others.
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 for decades until there was finally too much evidence to cover up.
Because of the asbestos industry’s negligence, thousands of lawsuits have now been filed by cancer patients seeking compensation.
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. The toxic mineral is cited as the primary cause of about 4 percent of lung cancer cases.
Most lung cancer traces back to smoking, and the combination of smoking and asbestos exposure creates an especially severe risk of this disease. More than 220,000 lung cancer cases were diagnosed in the U.S. in 2017.
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 occurred in 2017, according to the American Cancer Society. While it is a rare diagnosis, the combination of smoking, drinking and asbestos exposure increases a person’s risk significantly.
Ovarian cancer was diagnosed in more than 22,000 American women in 2017. While its cause is unknown in many cases, medical research has established asbestos exposure as a potential contributing factor.
Researchers are still debating how occupational or secondhand exposure to asbestos dust could cause ovarian cancer. Some cases have been linked to personal hygiene products made from 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. These include pharyngeal cancer, stomach cancer and colon cancer.
Pharyngeal cancer develops in the throat, between the mouth and the neck. Air passes through the pharynx on the way to the voice box, and food and water pass through on the way to the esophagus. Asbestos fibers can accumulate in the pharynx whether they are inhaled or swallowed.
Pharyngeal cancer afflicted about 17,000 Americans in 2017. As with laryngeal cancer, the main risk factors are smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.
About 28,000 Americans developed stomach cancer in 2017. 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 stomach cancer and other gastrointestinal cancers.
Water can be contaminated by industrial pollution or crumbling asbestos-cement pipes.
The IARC noted a positive association between asbestos exposure and colorectal cancer, but many studies have pointed to the colon specifically. 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. 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 were diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2017.
About 17,000 cases of esophageal cancer occurred in the U.S. 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. Recent research has suggested a link to asbestos exposure as well.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis in the U.S., affecting more than 255,000 Americans in 2017. 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, afflicting more than 160,000 Americans in 2017, 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. These cancers develop in 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 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. Read More
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