Asbestos a Risk Factor in Small-Cell Lung Cancer that Killed Joe Paterno

Asbestos Exposure & Bans

Written by Tim Povtak

Reading Time: 3 mins
Publication Date: 01/24/2012
Fact Checked
Our fact-checking process begins with a thorough review of all sources to ensure they are high quality. Then we cross-check the facts with original medical or scientific reports published by those sources, or we validate the facts with reputable news organizations, medical and scientific experts and other health experts. Each page includes all sources for full transparency.
Reviewed is the nation’s most trusted mesothelioma resource

The Mesothelioma Center at has provided patients and their loved ones the most updated and reliable information on mesothelioma and asbestos exposure since 2006.

Our team of Patient Advocates includes a medical doctor, a registered nurse, health services administrators, veterans, VA-accredited Claims Agents, an oncology patient navigator and hospice care expert. Their combined expertise means we help any mesothelioma patient or loved one through every step of their cancer journey.

More than 30 contributors, including mesothelioma doctors, survivors, health care professionals and other experts, have peer-reviewed our website and written unique research-driven articles to ensure you get the highest-quality medical and health information.

About The Mesothelioma Center at

  • Assisting mesothelioma patients and their loved ones since 2006.
  • Helps more than 50% of mesothelioma patients diagnosed annually in the U.S.
  • A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau.
  • 5-star reviewed mesothelioma and support organization.
Learn More About Us


My family has only the highest compliment for the assistance and support that we received from The Mesothelioma Center. This is a staff of compassionate and knowledgeable individuals who respect what your family is experiencing and who go the extra mile to make an unfortunate diagnosis less stressful. Information and assistance were provided by The Mesothelioma Center at no cost to our family.
Mesothelioma patient’s daughter
  • Google Review Rating
  • BBB Review Rating

How to Cite’s Article


Povtak, T. (2022, February 2). Asbestos a Risk Factor in Small-Cell Lung Cancer that Killed Joe Paterno. Retrieved June 2, 2023, from


Povtak, Tim. "Asbestos a Risk Factor in Small-Cell Lung Cancer that Killed Joe Paterno.", 2 Feb 2022,


Povtak, Tim. "Asbestos a Risk Factor in Small-Cell Lung Cancer that Killed Joe Paterno." Last modified February 2, 2022.

The small-cell lung cancer that killed legendary former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno may have been caused by a long-ago exposure to asbestos.

Paterno, a non-smoker, died Sunday, 72 days after he was diagnosed with what his son called a “treatable” lung cancer.

The Mount Nittany Medical Center, where Paterno died, announced that Paterno died of “metastic small-cell carcinoma of the lung,” an extremely aggressive form of cancer.

Just as stunning as the speed of Paterno’s decline was the remote possibility of Paterno getting this particular terminal disease. Non-smokers account for an estimated 15 percent of lung cancers, but almost none of those are the small-cell variety that Paterno had.

“It’s extremely rare to have small-cell cancer in a non-smoker,” Barbara Campling, oncologist at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Cancer Center, told the Philadelphia Inquirer on Monday.

Lung Cancer Linked to Asbestos, Secondhand Smoke and Radon

Small-cell lung cancer accounts for only 13-15 percent of all lung-cancer diagnosis, according to the American Cancer Society, and almost all are, or were, smokers. Paterno was neither.

Outside of smoking, the only other risk factors for small-cell lung cancer that experts have agreed upon are secondhand smoke, being exposed to radon, or being exposed to asbestos, the naturally occurring mineral that was used so extensively in the 20th century.

Although government regulations the past three decades have reduced dramatically the use of asbestos in new commercial and industrial products, it remains prevalent in homes, offices, stadiums and a myriad of products built before 1980.

The exposure to asbestos fibers, which are unknowingly inhaled into the lungs, can cause a variety of respiratory illnesses, which can have a latency period of up to 50 years after exposure.

Paterno’s Legacy Scarred by Scandal

Paterno, 85, coached for 46 years at Penn State, where he became the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history with 409 victories, two national championships and 37 post-season bowl games. More than 250 of his players reached the National Football League.

His legendary career, though, ended when he was fired Nov. 9 amid a child-abuse sex scandal involving his longtime assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky. Although Paterno never was implicated in the scandal, he failed to call the police when informed of the abuse in 2002, forever scarring his reputation.

Paterno, one of the most famous coaches in all of sports, had built his program on a motto of “Success with Honor,” always staying above the unsavory side of major college football.

Two days after he was fired, during a follow-up visit to treat what he believed was a bronchial illness, he was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer. A week later, his family issued a statement announcing the lung cancer, but without the grim prognosis.

“Doctors are optimistic he will make a full-recover,” read the family statement.

Small-cell lung cancer usually starts in the breathing tubes in the center of the chest. Cancer cells grow rapidly and create large tumors, which often spread quickly to other parts of the body, making it inoperable. And much like mesothelioma, a small-cell diagnosis usually is not made until the latter stages because symptoms don’t present themselves very clearly.

Paterno began chemotherapy and radiation treatments, which can be effective with small-cell lung cancer, but they were too toxic for his body and may have contributed to the speed of his decline. He fell at his home and fractured his pelvis Dec. 11.

He went back to the hospital Jan. 13, due to complications from the cancer treatments. He died nine days later.

paper with magnifying glass
Free Mesothelioma Resources
Get Access to Free Resources for Patients & Loved Ones