How Is Asbestos Cancer Treated?
Asbestos cancers, such as mesothelioma and lung cancer, are treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy.
For late-stage cancers that have spread throughout the body, palliative treatments are used to treat symptoms and make patients comfortable.
Factors Impacting Treatment
Oncologists take several factors into consideration when making a treatment plan for asbestos-related cancers. These include:
- Staging: Staging determines how far the cancer has progressed, including how large the tumor(s) is, movement into the lymph nodes and movement to other organs in the body.
- Mutations: Some cancer treatments target specific gene changes (mutations) in tumors, which can drive treatment plan decisions.
- Overall health: Some cancer treatments are more intense than others, so oncologists take age and underlying health conditions into consideration when choosing a treatment plan.
If you’re diagnosed with an asbestos-related cancer such as lung, ovarian or laryngeal cancer, oncologists will treat it similarly to mesothelioma. Treatments can include a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and several cancer drugs.
Types of Asbestos Cancer Treatments
Asbestos cancer treatments are often combined with one another, also known as a multimodal treatment plan. This method attacks cancer from many angles to give the best chance at symptom improvement, shrinking tumors and helping patients live longer.
Multimodal treatments typically consist of chemotherapy and/or radiation given before, during or after surgery. Targeted therapies and immunotherapy may also be combined with chemotherapy.
Smaller tumors that haven’t spread to nearby tissues or other organs in the body can be removed using surgery. It’s rarely used alone in treating cancer and is instead part of a multimodal plan. For example, tumors that are too large can be shrunk using radiation or chemotherapy, making surgery possible.
These therapies can also be used after surgery to kill off any remaining cancer cells left behind. This helps prevent the cancer from returning. One study found that treating ovarian cancer with surgery and chemotherapy improved survival over chemotherapy alone.
Chemotherapy uses drugs that target and kill rapidly dividing cells in the body, including cancer cells. Adjuvant chemotherapy is used before surgeries to shrink tumors. It can also be used as palliative care to help relieve cancer symptoms and make patients more comfortable.
Studies show chemotherapy is effective for treating asbestos cancers. One report found that cucurbitacin E blocked tumor growth in a mouse model of laryngeal cancer.
Radiation therapy uses intense beams of ionizing radiation to damage the DNA in cancer cells and kill them. Unlike other cancer treatments, radiation therapy is targeted, affecting only the parts of the body where the tumors are found.
Radiation therapy is used as part of multimodal treatment for asbestos cancers, including small cell lung cancer (SCLC). SCLC is treated with a combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy to treat tumors in the lungs and nearby lymph nodes. It can also be used to prevent spread (metastasis) to the brain.
Targeted therapies do as the name implies, and they “target” cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone. These drugs are designed to act on specific proteins or enzymes that cause uncontrolled cell growth, killing cancer cells and shrinking tumors.
There are two main types of targeted therapies used to treat asbestos cancers: Small molecule drugs and monoclonal antibodies (engineered proteins). For example, monoclonal antibodies can be designed to block certain proteins in ovarian cancer, stopping cancer cell growth.
Immunotherapy is a treatment that activates the body’s immune system against cancer. Some cancers can hide from the immune system because of certain proteins on their surface. Immunotherapy drugs bind to these proteins, allowing immune cells to recognize and destroy the cancer cells.
Studies show that a combination of immunotherapy and radiation therapy may be more effective for treating laryngeal cancer compared to immunotherapy alone.
In addition to medical treatments, complementary medicine can help address symptoms from cancer or therapies. These approaches include massage therapy, eating a healthy diet or practicing yoga or mindfulness. One study found that practicing yoga improved cognitive symptoms in breast and ovarian cancer survivors.
Side Effects of Cancer Treatment
You’ll likely experience side effects while taking cancer treatments. These vary between therapies and can include:
- Skin problems
- Low blood pressure
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Changes in appetite
- Muscle or joint pain
- Hair loss
Speak with your doctor about effective and safe ways to manage your side effects. If you experience a high fever, bleeding, shortness of breath or an allergic reaction such as swelling in the throat and difficulty swallowing, seek immediate medical attention.
Asbestos Lung Cancer Treatment
The main goals of treating asbestos-related lung cancer are to shrink tumors and improve symptoms. Most lung cancer cases can’t be cured with the available treatments, so there is a large focus on improving the patient’s quality of life.
Surgery is used to remove lung tumors and the surrounding tissue to completely eliminate cancer. In 2021, 20.7% of lung cancer patients had surgery to treat their disease. There are three main types of surgery:
- Resection: Removal of the tumor and a small portion of the surrounding tissue
- Lobectomy: Removal of the entire lung lobe affected by the tumor
- Pneumonectomy: Removal of an entire lung
Photodynamic therapy has also been studied for treating lung cancer. A 2021 study reported positive results when it’s combined with chemotherapy.
Small Cell Treatment
SCLC is an aggressive form of lung cancer that spreads quickly. With this, oncologists choose treatments that help contain the cancer.
Since SCLC spreads quickly, surgery is often not a treatment option. Some rare cases have had positive results in patients whose cancer was caught early.
A combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy (chemoradiation) is ideal for early-stage SCLC patients in good health. Platinum-based chemotherapy drugs, such as carboplatin or cisplatin, are used to treat late-stage SCLC.
Non-Small Cell Treatment
Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is a less aggressive and much more common form of lung cancer. A lobectomy is commonly used to remove NSCLC. In patients with poor lung function, surgeons may only remove a small wedge from the lung lobe.
In some cases, neoadjuvant chemotherapy is used to shrink NSCLC tumors before surgery. It can also be given after surgery as adjuvant chemotherapy to kill nearby cancer cells in the lymph nodes and lung tissue. In late-stage NSCLC, chemoradiation therapy is used to help shrink tumors and improve the patient’s symptoms.
Asbestos-Related Ovarian Cancer Treatment
When diagnosed early, asbestos-related ovarian cancer can be treated effectively. However, once it has spread, it can be difficult to manage. Ovarian cancer is usually treated with surgery, then chemotherapy.
Surgeries to treat ovarian cancer include:
- Laparotomy: Open surgery involving a large incision on the abdomen
- Hysterectomy: Removal of the uterus and in some cases, the cervix
- Salpingo-oophorectomy: Removal of one or both ovaries and fallopian tubes
- Hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy: Application of warmed chemotherapy directly into the abdomen during ovarian cancer surgery
Ovarian cancer is also treated with a variety of targeted therapies that block growth factors and enzymes. These include:
- Avastin (bevacizumab): A monoclonal antibody that blocks the effects of vascular endothelial growth factor, preventing the formation of new blood vessels for tumors.
- Poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase inhibitors: Small molecule drugs that block the DNA repair process, causing cancer cells to die. Examples include Lynparza (Olaparib), Zejula (niraparib), and Orgovyx (rucaparib).
- NRTK inhibitors: Small molecule drugs that block abnormal proteins made from mutations in the NRTK gene. Examples include Rozlytrek (entrectinib) and Vitrakvi (larotrectinib).
External beam radiation therapy is also used to treat ovarian cancer. This uses focused beams of radiation over the skin of the abdomen.
Asbestos-Related Laryngeal Cancer Treatment
Asbestos-related laryngeal cancer is treated with a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and targeted therapy. Treatment plans are developed based on where the cancer is located within the larynx.
Surgery for laryngeal cancer can involve removing parts of the larynx (partial laryngectomy) or the entire larynx (total laryngectomy). If there is cancer in the vocal cords, a cordectomy may be performed. Adjuvant chemotherapy or radiation therapy is sometimes given after surgery to kill remaining cancer cells.
A specific type of radiation therapy, known as hyperfractionated radiation therapy, is used to treat laryngeal cancer. This method uses two smaller daily doses of radiation compared to one larger daily dose.
Targeted therapies that block the epidermal growth factor to stop cancer cell growth are also used for laryngeal cancer. One example is the monoclonal antibody Erbitux (cetuximab), which can be combined with radiation therapy or chemotherapy for patients with late-stage disease.
Getting Treatment for Asbestos-Related Cancers
If you’ve been diagnosed with an asbestos-related cancer, it’s important to find a top cancer center for your treatment. Choosing a cancer center with experience in your specific cancer type may improve your treatment outcomes. For example, the American Cancer Society has found that having surgery for laryngeal cancer at a center that regularly performs those surgeries improves survival.
Start your search for a comprehensive cancer center that meets your treatment needs.
Doctors Specializing in Asbestos Cancers
After receiving an asbestos cancer diagnosis, you may be wondering where to start with treatment. Multiple doctors who specialize in different areas as part of a multimodal treatment plan will likely treat you. These include:
- Medical oncologist: A specialist who treats patients with chemotherapy, targeted therapy and/or immunotherapy.
- Surgeon: A specialist who focuses on performing surgery in specific cancer types.
- Radiation oncologist: A specialist who treats patients with radiation therapy.
- Pathologist: A specialist who analyzes tissue samples to look for cancer.
Accessing Emerging Treatments in Clinical Trials
Clinical trials are studies that investigate new treatments to ensure they’re safe and effective. These include new drugs, surgeries or methods for diagnosing diseases. Cancer patients can take advantage of clinical trials to try new treatments if their current therapies aren’t working.
Clinical trials are always recruiting patients. If you’re interested in joining a clinical trial, talk to your oncologist to find out what studies you qualify for. Below are a few clinical trials available on ClinicalTrials.gov.
This study will characterize the safety and tolerability of IAG933. After determining the recommended dose and maximum tolerated dose, dose expansion will assess the preliminary anti-tumor activity in defined patient populations.
- Locations: Illinois; Massachusetts; Ohio; Texas; Quebec
- Recruiting: Yes
Researchers are studying a combination of drugs as a possible treatment for EGFR-mutated advanced lung cancer. The immunotherapy drugs involved are niraparib and osimertinib.
- Locations: Boston, Massachusetts
- Recruiting: Yes
This trial evaluates the safety and efficacy of either durvalumab alone or combined with tremelimumab or Olaparib following thoracic radiation therapy.
- Locations: Tampa, Florida
- Recruiting: Yes