10 Min Read
Last Updated: 05/23/2024
Fact Checked

Written by Karen Selby, RN | Medically Reviewed By Dr. Jacques Fontaine | Edited By Walter Pacheco

Key Facts About Asbestos Lung Cancer
  • Symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain and coughing up blood.
  • Asbestos lung cancer may develop 15 to 35 years after asbestos exposure.
  • The 2 main forms of lung cancer from asbestos are small cell and non-small cell.
  • Prognosis and treatment depend on the type and stage of cancer.

What Should I Know About Lung Cancer Caused by Asbestos?

Asbestos exposure causes a small percentage of lung cancer cases every year. Exposure to asbestos increases the risk of lung cancer in smokers and non-smokers. The risk of lung cancer increases five-fold with exposure to asbestos, according to a 2023 report. 

Many people may not realize asbestos causes lung cancer in addition to mesothelioma. As asbestos enters the lungs, it can damage the tissue within the lungs and the air sacs that help exchange air between your bloodstream and the outside air.

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.

Veterans and others connected with military service are at high risk because of the extensive use of asbestos in the military. Mining, construction, heavy industry, shipbuilding and firefighting are also high-risk groups.

Mesothelioma vs. Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that develops in different mesothelial linings in the body. Pleural mesothelioma develops in the lining of the lungs, and its close location to the lungs leads to its confusion with lung cancer. 

Diagram of a lung comparing malignant mesothelioma plaque in the lining versus a cancerous tumor
Diagram comparing malignant mesothelioma plaque inside a lung versus a cancerous tumor on the lining.

Asbestos lung cancer develops inside the lung. Asbestos-related lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma are two different types of cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Both diseases take decades to develop but then can spread or metastasize within months.

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

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Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer

Types of Asbestos Lung Cancer

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

Regardless of whether asbestos contributes to the disease, small cell lung cancer tends to grow and spread more aggressively than non-small cell lung cancer. It also has distinct characteristics when viewed under a microscope. Its cancer cells are small and oat-shaped compared to the larger, more varied cells seen in non-small cell lung cancer.

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Asbestos exposure can cause non-small cell lung cancer, which 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.

Non-Small Cell Subtypes
  • Adenocarcinoma: This type 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: This type 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: This type 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 carcinomas.

The prognosis for NSCLC varies depending on factors such as the stage of the cancer, presence of specific genetic mutations and a patient’s response to treatment.

Small Cell Lung Cancer

Exposure to asbestos can also cause small cell lung cancer, which 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 its metastasis. Doctors instead rely on chemotherapy to attack cancer cells throughout the body.

How Does Asbestos Cause Lung Cancer?

After someone inhales airborne asbestos, the mineral’s microscopic fibers can become lodged in lung tissue, damaging the cells over time. Research into the relationship of asbestos and lung cancer has found evidence the toxic fibers may spark changes within the cellular DNA.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer is the specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization. In 2017, the IARC conducted an extensive study showing that asbestos changes specific genes in the body.

Illustration of How Asbestos Can Cause Lung Cancer
Image shows how asbestos fibers enter the body and cause asbestos-related lung cancer tumors.
Illustration of How Asbestos Can Cause Lung Cancer

Asbestos-related lung cancer typically takes between 15 and 35 years to develop. While not all people exposed to asbestos will develop lung cancer, those exposed to large amounts of asbestos for long periods of time are at the most risk. 

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.

Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer and Smoking

The risk of lung cancer is much higher among asbestos-exposed smokers for several reasons. Smoking impairs the immune response to asbestos damage and the lungs’ ability to remove asbestos fibers. 

Any amount of asbestos exposure contributes to the development of lung cancer, even among heavy smokers. Those smokers who have been exposed to asbestos should stop smoking immediately and seek annual screenings for lung cancer.

Dr. Jacques Fontaine and Dr. Virginia Wolf
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Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer Symptoms

Asbestos-related lung cancer symptoms can resemble those of other respiratory conditions, often leading to delayed diagnosis. Whether lung cancer is associated with asbestos exposure, smoking or another cause, it presents the same general symptoms.

Asbestos Lung Cancer Symptoms
  • Chest pain
  • Chronic respiratory infections
  • Coughing up blood
  • Fatigue
  • Hoarseness or wheezing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Persistent coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of the face or neck
  • Weight loss

These symptoms typically only arise once lung 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.

Diagnosing Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer 

Tissue biopsies, imaging scans, blood tests and physical exams help to diagnose asbestos-related lung cancer. 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. A pathologist must examine a biopsy sample of suspicious tissue to confirm a lung cancer diagnosis.

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

The diagnostic process begins with physical exams and pulmonary function tests. Imaging scans such as X-rays and CT scans help visualize potential tumors. A 2021 clinical research study noted that PET-CT scans of patients with asbestos-related lung cancer showed comparable sensitivity and specificity to similar scans of patients with conventional lung cancer.

Asbestosis, a noncancerous asbestos-related condition, and lung cancer are commonly associated. This is because the risk for both increases 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. 

Immunotherapy is one of the treatments we’re asked about most often. Patients want to know more about what they’ll experience after an immunotherapy infusion. I’m here to help answer their questions and guide them to specialists and resources.

Treatment for Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

Treatment for asbestos-related lung cancer typically involves a multimodal approach tailored to the patient’s condition. Surgery aims to remove tumors, chemotherapy kills cancer cells, radiation prevents recurrence, and immunotherapy boosts the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells. 

Clinical trials may offer innovative treatments for asbestos-related lung cancer. Patient prognosis varies depending on factors such as cancer stage, overall health and response to treatment, highlighting the importance of individualized care plans and ongoing monitoring for optimal outcomes.

Most Common Treatments for Lung Cancer From Asbestos

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

“The most typical surgery for treating asbestos-related lung cancer is a lobectomy,” Sean Marchese, RN and oncology writer at The Mesothelioma Center explained. “That’s where a surgeon will go in and remove a section of the lung called a lobe that contains the largest amount of cancer.”

Treating Asbestos Lung Cancer
  • 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.
  • Immunotherapy: The U.S. FDA has approved several targeted immunotherapies such as Keytruda (pembrolizumab) and Opdivo (nivolumab) to treat advanced non-small cell lung cancer. Immunotherapies amplify the body’s immune response to recognize and kill cancer cells.
  • Radiation Therapy: High-energy targeted radiation is used to kill cancer cells or slow growth.
  • 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).

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.

Dr. Jacques Fontaine and Dr. Virginia Wolf
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Asbestos Lung Cancer Prognosis & Survival Rates

Median survival time of asbestos-related lung cancer is 2.92 years, according to a 2024 Korean study. About 18% of lung cancer patients survive more than 5 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 all lung cancer patients die within one year of being diagnosed. 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 of diagnosis (the stage of the 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 is also the primary cause of pleural mesothelioma, a cancer that forms in the lining around 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.

How do doctors link lung cancer to asbestos?

The Helsinki Criteria helps doctors determine if asbestos is the primary cause of lung cancer. Criteria involve evidence of asbestos exposure, such as a diagnosis of asbestosis, higher-than-normal levels of asbestos fibers in the lung tissue and heavy exposure history. The condition must have developed at least 10 years after the initial exposure to asbestos.

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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