Asbestos a Risk Factor In Small-Cell Lung Cancer that Killed Ex-Penn State Coach Joe Paterno

Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno

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.

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 second-hand 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, 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, although 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.


Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His most recent experience is in researching and writing about asbestos litigation issues and asbestos-related conditions like mesothelioma. If you have a story idea for Tim, please email him at tpovtak@asbestos.com

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