Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

Fact Checked

Asbestos-related lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma are both caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. Asbestos lung cancer develops in the lung, and pleural mesothelioma develops in the mesothelium, which is the lining of the lung. Asbestos lung cancer symptoms include shortness of breath and chest pain.

Free Lung Cancer Guide

What Should I Know About Lung Cancer Caused by Asbestos?

Only a small percentage of lung cancer cases are primarily linked to asbestos. Tobacco smoking accounts for about 80% of lung cancer deaths in the United States. Exposure to asbestos increases the risk of lung cancer in smokers and non-smokers.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. It kills more Americans each year than breast, prostate and colon cancer combined. Lung cancer caused by asbestos is responsible for an estimated 6,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.

Asbestos Lung Cancer Facts

  • Symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain and coughing up blood
  • May develop 15 to 35 years after asbestos exposure
  • Two main forms are small cell and non-small cell
  • Prognosis and treatment depend on type and stage of cancer

Mesothelioma vs. Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

Lung cancer caused by asbestos is different than pleural mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs instead of inside the lung. Both diseases take decades to develop but only months to spread or metastasize.

Pleural mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer involve similar diagnostic procedures and symptoms, but they differ in physical characteristics and treatment techniques. Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma, while smoking is by far the leading cause of lung cancer.

But asbestos exposure causes six times more cases of lung cancer than mesothelioma. Lung cancer claims the most lives of all asbestos-related diseases.

Learn More About Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer

Diagram of a lung comparing malignant mesothelioma plaque in the lining versus a cancerous tumor
Mesothelioma cancer cells are found in the lining of the lungs. Lung cancer is generally a tumor in the lung itself.

How Does Asbestos Cause Lung Cancer?

When a person inhales asbestos, microscopic fibers can become lodged in their lung tissue. Over many years, the fibers can cause enough genetic and cellular damage to cause lung cells to turn cancerous.

Asbestos-related lung cancer typically takes between 15 and 35 years to develop from initial exposure to onset of symptoms. Because of this long latency period, most cases diagnosed today were caused by occupational asbestos exposure that occurred decades ago when asbestos use was prevalent.

The most at-risk professions involve mining, construction, heavy industry, shipbuilding and firefighting. Veterans are also a high-risk group for asbestos-related lung cancer because of the military’s reliance on asbestos products.

Risk factors for asbestos lung cancer include:

  • Duration and intensity of asbestos exposure
  • Genetics
  • Smoking history
  • Overall health

Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer and Smoking

The risk of lung cancer is much higher among asbestos-exposed smokers because smoking impairs the lungs’ ability to remove asbestos fibers. Smokers who have been exposed to asbestos should stop smoking immediately and seek annual screenings for lung cancer.

Mesothelioma Nutrition Guide

Get a Second Opinion From a Specialist

Get connected with a mesothelioma specialist who can confirm the diagnosis and help create a treatment plan for you or a loved one.

Get Help Now

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Whether lung cancer is associated with asbestos exposure, smoking or another cause, it presents the same general symptoms:

  • Persistent coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest discomfort or pain
  • Hoarseness or wheezing
  • Coughing up blood
  • Fatigue and loss of appetite
  • Swelling of the face or neck
  • Chronic respiratory infections

These symptoms typically only arise once the cancer reaches a late stage of development, when the cancer is tougher to treat. People with a history of asbestos exposure should seek regular screening for asbestos-related diseases.

How Is Asbestos Lung Cancer Diagnosed?

The diagnostic process begins with imaging scans such as X-rays and CT scans. A pathologist must examine a biopsy sample of suspicious tissue to confirm a lung cancer diagnosis.

A biopsy may be extracted through a long needle or with a bronchoscope, which is passed down the throat and into the airways of the lungs.

Lung cancer x-ray
An x-ray showing a patient with lung cancer.

Lung Cancer Treatment

Treatment options for asbestos-related lung cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy.

Aggressive treatments aim to remove or kill cancer cells to prevent the spread of cells and tumors. Palliative therapies help ease pain and other symptoms to improve quality of life.

  • Surgery: Tumor-removing surgery may be an option if the cancer is diagnosed in an early stage when spread is limited. Doctors may remove the tumor and a small portion of the lung (resection), one of the lung lobes (lobectomy) or the entire lung (pneumonectomy).
  • Chemotherapy: This is the most common treatment when lung cancer has spread from the initial tumor. It aims to shrink tumors and kill cancer cells.
  • Radiation Therapy: High-energy targeted radiation is used to kill cancer cells or slow growth.
  • Immunotherapy: Several immunotherapies such as pembrolizumab (Keytruda) and nivolumab (Opdivo) have been approved to treat advanced non-small cell lung cancer. Immunotherapies amplify immune response to recognize and kill cancer cells.

Learn More About Treatment for Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

Prognosis and Survival Rates

The prognosis for lung cancer depends on the type and subtype of the disease. It also depends on the patient’s overall health and how far the cancer has spread by the time it has been diagnosed.

About 18% of lung cancer patients survive more than five years after diagnosis, according to the American Lung Association. This is significantly lower than other leading cancers such as breast (89.6%) and prostate (98.2%).

More than half of lung cancer patients die within one year of being diagnosed.

Learn More About Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer Prognosis

Types of Lung Cancer

There are two primary forms of lung cancer: Small cell and non-small cell. Asbestos exposure can cause any of the various types and subtypes of lung cancer.

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) accounts for about 85% of all lung cancer cases. There are three subtypes of non-small cell: Squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma and large cell carcinoma.

  • Adenocarcinoma forms in mucus-producing glandular tissues that line the air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs. Accounting for about 40% of all NSCLC cases, adenocarcinoma is the most common type of lung cancer seen in non-smokers.
  • Squamous cell (epidermoid) carcinoma forms in flat cells that line the inside airways of the lungs. It accounts about 25% to 30% of all lung cancers.
  • Large cell (undifferentiated) carcinoma can appear in any part of the lung. This subtype grows and spreads more rapidly than the other varieties of NSCLC. About 10% to 15% of all lung cancers are large cell.

Small Cell Lung Cancer

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) makes up 10% to 15% of cases and is more difficult to treat. The cancer can spread to other parts of the body before presenting any symptoms.

Unfortunately, surgery is rarely an option with SCLC because of this factor. Doctors instead rely on chemotherapy that attacks cancer cells throughout the body.

How Do Doctors Link Lung Cancer to Asbestos?

The Helsinki Criteria were established in 1997. These standards help doctors determine if asbestos is the cause of respiratory diseases.

Criteria for diagnosing asbestos-related lung cancer includes:

  • Latency Period: The lung cancer must have developed at least 10 years after the initial exposure to asbestos.
  • Evidence of Asbestos Exposure: This may include a diagnosis of asbestosis, higher than normal asbestos fibers in the lung tissue and exposure levels of airborne asbestos equal to or greater than 25 fibers per milliliter of air a year. This level is typical of shipbuilding and construction work.

Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer and Asbestosis

Asbestosis and lung cancer are commonly associated. This is because the risk for both rises as asbestos fibers accumulate in lung tissue.

The presence of asbestosis is a reliable diagnostic marker that a patient was exposed to asbestos enough to develop lung cancer.

Find a Top Mesothelioma Attorney

Let us help
Asbestos.com Mesothelioma Packet

Get Your Free Mesothelioma Guide

Get Yours Now

Need Financial Help for Your Mesothelioma?

Find Out How

Oncology Medical Writer

Suzanne Dixon is a registered dietitian, epidemiologist and experienced medical writer. She has volunteered with the National Cancer Policy Forum, Oncology Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, American Institute for Cancer Research, American Society for Clinical Oncology, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The New York Times and Time Magazine also have reviewed her cancer patient resources.

Walter Pacheco, Managing Editor at Asbestos.com
Edited by
Reviewed by placeholder
Medical Review By

7 Cited Article Sources

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, July 19). How Is Lung Cancer Diagnosed and Treated?
    Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/lung/basic_info/diagnosis_treatment.htm
  2. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2017, October 27). Lung Cancer.
    Retrieved from: https://medlineplus.gov/lungcancer.html
  3. American Cancer Society. (2016, May 16). What Is Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer?
    Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/non-small-cell-lung-cancer/about/what-is-non-small-cell-lung-cancer.html
  4. American Cancer Society. (2015, September 15). Asbestos and Cancer Risk.
    Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/asbestos.html
  5. Wolff, H. et al. (2015, January). Asbestos, asbestosis, and cancer, the Helsinki criteria for diagnosis and attribution 2014: Recommendations.
    Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25299403
  6. National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Cancer Stat Facts: Lung and Bronchus Cancer.
    Retrieved from: https://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/lungb.html
  7. McCormack, V. et al. (2012, January 31). Estimating the asbestos-related lung cancer burden from mesothelioma mortality. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3273352/
  •  
  •  
  •  

Did this article help you?

Did this article help you?

Thank you for your feedback. Would you like to speak with a Patient Advocate?

On This Page

Back to Top

Share this article

Last Modified October 28, 2019

Chat live with a patient advocate now