Types of Asbestos Cancer
Asbestos exposure has been linked to a number of serious diseases and conditions, including asbestosis, mesothelioma and even some cases of common cancers like breast cancer.
Though these cancers and conditions caused by asbestos are quite rare, they highlight a global burden with cases expected to continue to increase for some time. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), asbestos cancers cause at least around 12,000 deaths in the United States each year.
Diagnosing Asbestos Cancer
Across all types of asbestos cancers, the first signs of disease are typically nonspecific. The symptoms can be as vague as a persistent cough, chest pain or shortness of breath, signs that can be associated with other, less serious conditions or other types of cancer. The symptoms will vary depending on the origin of the cancer, like the lungs, lung lining or the abdominal cavity.
Common Asbestos Cancer Symptoms
- Abdominal pain and swelling
- Chest pain
- Loss of appetite or nausea
- Persistent cough
- Shortness of breath
Considering many people don’t realize or remember they were exposed to asbestos because of the extended duration of the cancer’s progression, these health risks can be even more dangerous. After exposure, it takes anywhere from a decade to upwards of 50 years for mesothelioma or other asbestos cancers to show symptoms. The asbestos fibers become stuck in the body, like in the lining of the lungs, and cause irritation and scarring over time. This irritation can develop into tumors, causing these diseases such as pleural mesothelioma. For many patients, the symptoms won’t begin to present until the cancer has already developed to a more advanced stage.
The long latency period of asbestos-related diseases combined with such vague symptoms makes these cancers incredibly difficult to diagnose and can be a lengthy process. Diagnosing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases is done through tests, which may include imaging scans, like CT scans and MRIs. In most cases, a biopsy or a tissue sample is required to definitively diagnose the disease. Some advancements have been made in detecting mesothelioma and other asbestos cancers earlier through biomarkers and blood tests, but more research is still needed.
Diagnosing asbestos-related cancers early is so important, as mesothelioma especially is known as an aggressive cancer with a poor prognosis. With earlier detection, patients will have more curative treatment options and a better opportunity for extended survival.
Treatment for Asbestos Cancers
Like other types of cancer, asbestos cancer can be treated with conventional therapies like chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy. Often, asbestos cancers are treated with a multimodal approach, or combination of therapies. In many instances, multimodal treatment has been shown to improve survival rates rather than treating with chemotherapy or surgery on its own.
Treatment plans will vary based on the individual’s case. Many factors can impact the treatments available for a particular patient including the type and cell type of the cancer, stage, age and gender. Though the standard of care differs for each type of asbestos cancer, some patients may be ineligible or may find better results with a new combination or emerging treatment. Determining the best treatment course for an individual’s case is vital to improving life expectancy.
Standard Treatments for Asbestos Cancers
- Pleural Mesothelioma: Surgery (pleurectomy or extrapleural pneumonectomy) and chemotherapy
- Peritoneal Mesothelioma: Cytoreductive surgery plus heated intraperitoneal chemotherapy wash (HIPEC)
- Pericardial Mesothelioma: Surgery (pericardiectomy or pericardiocentesis) and chemotherapy
- Asbestos Lung Cancer: Surgery and/or chemotherapy and radiation
- Asbestosis: Supplemental oxygen and other medications
Along with common multimodal approaches, clinical trials and ongoing studies are examining the efficacy of new combinations of conventional cancer treatments as well as more experimental therapies.
Immunotherapy, for instance, is one emerging type of treatment that has shown benefits for lung and mesothelioma cancer. Since this new type of treatment relies on boosting the immune system in some way, it has proven to be promising for cancers like mesothelioma and other lung diseases that are immunogenic, or capable of producing an immune response.
Keytruda® (pembrolizumab) and Opdivo (nivolumab) are among several immunotherapy drugs that have already been FDA approved for the treatment of certain kinds of asbestos-related lung cancer, including all types of non-small cell lung carcinoma (NSCLC). Though no immunotherapy drugs are FDA-approved for mesothelioma yet, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) revised the standard chemotherapy treatment recommendation of alimta and cisplatin to also include Avastin®(bevacizumab), another type of immunotherapy drug.
Immunotherapy and other emerging treatments, like photodynamic therapy, have even shown promise for patients with more advanced disease, or cancer that has spread to other organs and the lymph nodes. In a recent clinical trial, malignant mesothelioma patients diagnosed at stage 3 and stage 4, with an average life expectancy of about one year, saw survival of three years or more when treated with photodynamic therapy and surgery.
Research into immunotherapy and new treatment combinations continues to be a focus for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers, with the hopes of finding a cure.