Written By: Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RDN, Last modified: April 5, 2021

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.

Quick Facts About Asbestos Lung Cancer

  • 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.

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.

According to an international study published in 2020, no substance causes more cases of lung cancer linked to occupation than asbestos. The study found that asbestos is responsible for 37.5% of all occupational lung cancer cases.

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.

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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.

Asbestos Lung Cancer Surgery

Watch: Learn how lobectomy surgery is used to treat asbestos-related lung cancer.

  • 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 (wedge 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.

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 (the stage of the cancer).

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.

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 for 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 include:
  • 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.

Common Questions About Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

What types of lung cancers does asbestos cause?

Asbestos exposure can cause any type of lung cancer. The two broad classifications of lung cancer are non-small cell and small cell, which are subcategorized by cell type. People with a smoking history are more susceptible to asbestos-related lung cancer. Asbestos also causes pleural mesothelioma, which forms in the lining outside the lungs and is not considered lung cancer.

Does everyone exposed to asbestos get lung cancer?

Not every person exposed to asbestos will develop lung cancer or other asbestos-related diseases. A person’s risk of illness will increase relative to their level of exposure to asbestos. Frequent and extended periods of concentrated asbestos exposure present the highest risk.

What is the difference between mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer?

All forms of lung cancer originate inside the lungs. Mesothelioma is also cancer, but it develops in the tissue that lines the outside of the lungs, chest cavity and abdomen. Asbestos exposure can cause both types of illness.


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