01. How Asbestos Causes Cancer
How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?
People may accidentally inhale or swallow microscopic asbestos fibers. Once the fibers enter the body, they cannot be broken down or removed. Over time, the fibers can cause irritation, inflammation and scarring. This can lead to tumor development and cancers like mesothelioma.
It can take many years for asbestos-related cancers to develop and symptoms to emerge. This is called a latency period. Often, mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer patients aren’t diagnosed until 10 – 50 years after their first exposure.
02. Asbestos Cancer Types
What Types of Cancer Are Caused by Asbestos?
Asbestos can cause many types of cancer. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has definitively linked asbestos exposure to mesothelioma, lung cancer, ovarian cancer and laryngeal cancer.
- Mesothelioma is caused by asbestos.
- Asbestos fibers can become lodged in organ linings (mesothelium), triggering cancerous changes.
- Mesothelioma cancer most often occurs in the tissues surrounding the lungs or the abdomen.
- Lung cancer may be caused by several things, including asbestos.
- Asbestos fibers can become lodged in the lung tissues and cause tumors to develop.
- Additional risk factors for lung cancer include smoking and family history.
- Researchers continue to study the connection between asbestos and ovarian cancer.
- Evidence suggests trace asbestos in contaminated talcum powder can cause ovarian cancer.
- Researchers continue to study how asbestos causes laryngeal cancer.
- Smoking, heavy alcohol use and exposure to other toxins can increase the risk of laryngeal cancer.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) also links the above cancers to asbestos exposure. The IARC is part of the World Health Organization (WHO) and is a leader in cancer research.
Some studies suggest a possible link between asbestos and other types of cancers. These include breast cancer, stomach cancer and colon cancer. However, the IARC’s studies have conclusively linked asbestos as a cause of the four types of cancer listed above. Other research organizations have also published studies that support the IARC’s findings.
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that develops in organ linings. It is caused by exposure to asbestos fibers. Inhaling or ingesting asbestos can lead to the fibers becoming embedded in organ linings. After that, the fibers can cause inflammation, irritation and mutation, leading to cancer.
The location of the affected tissues determines mesothelioma type. The most common type is pleural mesothelioma, which develops in the lining around the lungs (pleura). Mesothelioma may also develop in the linings around the abdomen (peritoneum), heart (pericardium) or testis (tunica vaginalis).
Asbestos and Mesothelioma Quick Facts
- Any amount of asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma.
- The term “asbestos cancer” most commonly refers to mesothelioma.
- There are about 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma annually.
- The average mesothelioma life expectancy is 18 – 31 months after diagnosis.
- The 5-year survival rate for pleural mesothelioma patients is about 12%.
Asbestos Lung Cancer
Asbestos exposure can also lead to lung cancer. Asbestos lung cancer develops after fibers are inhaled and become lodged in the lung tissue. The fibers can then cause irritation, triggering the formation of malignant cells.
The development of asbestos-related lung cancer can take more than a decade. As a result, symptoms may not appear for many years after initial exposure.
Research has found long-term asbestos exposure increases the likelihood of developing asbestos-related lung cancer. However, there are several other risk factors, such as smoking.
Lung Cancer and Asbestos Quick Facts
- Asbestos lung cancer typically presents more than a decade after exposure.
- Greater levels of exposure generally lead to a higher risk of lung cancer.
- Some research indicates that asbestos causes around 4% of lung cancer cases. Other studies have estimated the figure to be as high as 18%.
- There will be an estimated 238,340 new cases of lung cancer in 2023.*
- The 5-year survival rate for lung cancer patients is about 25%.*
*Source: SEER Cancer Stat Facts
Asbestos-Related Ovarian Cancer
Asbestos exposure can lead to ovarian cancer. Asbestos-related ovarian cancer is caused when asbestos fibers travel through the body to the ovaries. There are two main ways asbestos may reach the ovaries:
- People apply asbestos-contaminated products (such as talcum powder) to the genitals. Fibers then travel through the reproductive system.
- People inhale or swallow asbestos. Fibers then travel through the bloodstream or the lymphatic system, eventually reaching the ovaries.
The IARC recognized asbestos as a proven cause of ovarian cancer in 2009. More recent studies continue to support this finding.
Asbestos and Ovarian Cancer Quick Facts
- Ovarian cancer has been linked to regular talcum powder use. Talcum powder can be particularly dangerous if contaminated with asbestos.
- Cases of ovarian cancer have been linked to secondary exposure for women who live with people who held high-risk asbestos occupations.
- Increasing age and hormonal treatments may heighten the risk of ovarian cancer.
- There will be an estimated 19,710 new ovarian cancer cases in 2023.*
- The 5-year survival rate for ovarian cancer patients is about 51%.*
*Source: SEER Cancer Stat Facts
Asbestos-Related Laryngeal Cancer
Asbestos exposure can lead to laryngeal cancer (cancer of the voice box). Asbestos-related laryngeal cancer is caused by inhaling asbestos. Fibers must travel through the larynx before reaching the lungs. As a result, fibers can embed in the tissues of the voice box. This can lead to the development of malignant cells.
The link between laryngeal cancer and asbestos was unknown for many years. However the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have confirmed the relationship. Many medical studies also support asbestos as a cause.
Asbestos and Laryngeal Cancer Quick Facts
- Studies have found a link between asbestos exposure and laryngeal cancer rates.
- Smoking and excessive alcohol use may increase the risk of asbestos-related laryngeal cancer.
- Exposure to other carcinogens may lead to an increased risk of asbestos-related laryngeal cancer.
- There will be an estimated 12,380 new cases of laryngeal cancer in 2023.*
- The 5-year survival for laryngeal cancer patients is about 62%.*
*Source: SEER Cancer Stat Facts
Other Asbestos-Related Diseases
Asbestos exposure may cause other cancers and illnesses as well. Cancers that may be linked to asbestos exposure include:
- Breast cancer
- Colon cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Pharyngeal cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Rectal cancer
- Stomach cancer
Non-Malignant Asbestos Illnesses
Asbestos exposure can contribute to the development of non-cancerous diseases, too. The following conditions vary in severity, but have all been associated with asbestos exposure.
- Pericardial effusion
- Peritoneal effusion
- Pleural effusion
- Pleural plaques
- Pleural thickening
- Rounded atelectasis
Some people may be diagnosed with a benign asbestos disease. However, a benign condition could also be associated with a malignant condition. For example, pleural effusion is a symptom of pleural mesothelioma.
Resources for Mesothelioma Patients
03. Risk Factors
Asbestos Cancer Risk Factors
Studies have found several factors that may increase the risk of developing asbestos cancer, including:
- Alcohol use
- Existing medical conditions
- Increasing age
- Increasing duration or intensity of asbestos exposure
- Low physical activity
- Poor diet
- Radiation exposure
How Does Asbestos Exposure Happen?
Asbestos exposure can happen in many ways. One of the most common ways to come into contact with asbestos is through asbestos-containing products. This may happen on the job, for people like construction workers. It can also happen at home, while renovating or using consumer products. Although no level of exposure is safe, long-term exposure increases the risk of asbestos cancer.
Individuals who know they have been exposed to asbestos should inform their doctor as soon as possible. Proactive monitoring may help increase the likelihood of early detection. Asbestos cancer patients diagnosed in early stages often have better prognoses than those diagnosed at later stages.
Preventive Measures for Asbestos Exposure
There are a few steps people can take to lower their risk of asbestos exposure.
For people who work around asbestos, it is important to follow state and federal asbestos handling regulations. This can include wearing proper protective gear, wetting down products to prevent airborne fibers and following disposal guidelines.
For people who don’t work in at-risk occupations, being aware of potential asbestos risks can go a long way. For example, homeowners can hire asbestos contractors to abate any asbestos lawfully. People who use personal care products containing talc can also avoid potential asbestos exposure by switching to non-talc products.
How Is Asbestos Cancer Diagnosed?
Different asbestos cancers and conditions will have varying diagnostic processes. For example, mesothelioma can only be definitively diagnosed by biopsy. Other conditions may be diagnosed with an imaging scan and blood test. This is why doctors often perform several tests to narrow down conditions before a full diagnosis.
The asbestos cancer diagnostic process typically involves several testing methods. Doctors may begin by examining a patient’s medical history and analyzing symptoms.
Asbestos Cancer Symptoms
Specific symptoms may vary between types of asbestos cancer. Individuals with known asbestos exposure should contact their doctors if any new symptoms arise or if existing issues get worse. Common asbestos cancer symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Difficulty or pain when swallowing
- New lumps
- Reproductive or sexual changes
- Weight loss
After reviewing symptoms, doctors may perform a physical evaluation and other tests. Tests commonly used while diagnosing asbestos cancers include:
- Biopsies: Needle and surgical biopsy samples can help determine if affected tissues are benign or malignant. Tissue samples can also assist in typing any cancers found.
- Blood tests: These tests are used to rule out minor conditions and identify potential biomarkers. Biomarkers are substances that may help doctors detect the presence of mesothelioma cells.
- Imaging scans: Tests like X-rays and CT scans can help locate abnormalities in tissues and organs.
Individuals with asbestos cancer symptoms should seek medical care as soon as they can, especially those with a known history of exposure. They should also disclose any known history of asbestos exposure to their care teams.
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05. Treating Asbestos Cancer
Asbestos Cancer Treatment
Treatments for asbestos-related cancers include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy. Patients may also be able to pursue experimental treatments through clinical trials. Experienced cancer specialists will know which clinical trials may be available for particular patients.
Treatment plans will vary on a case-by-case basis. Doctors will consider multiple factors when creating a treatment plan, including cancer type, stage, overall health, age and other patient characteristics.
Patients should seek care from specialists to ensure they receive an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment. For example, mesothelioma specialists have a deep understanding of which treatment options work best for different types of mesothelioma.
Managing Emotions and Finances During Cancer Treatment
Some patients may find treatment overwhelming. But treatment is the best way for patients to improve their prognosis, extend their life expectancy and boost their quality of life. For example, mesothelioma patients who undergo any type of treatment generally live about six months longer than those who do not.
There are resources to help manage the emotional, physical and financial burden of an asbestos cancer diagnosis.
- Asbestos cancer patients and caregivers can seek out resources for coping with the emotions that come with a diagnosis.
- Patients may be able to seek palliative procedures to help with symptom management. Seeing a cancer dietitian may also help manage symptoms and treatment side effects.
- Patients and loved ones may be able to seek financial assistance for treatment costs associated with asbestos cancers.
06. Common Questions
Common Questions About Asbestos Cancer
Will I get cancer if I breathe in asbestos?
- Breathing in (or swallowing) fibers can increase the risk of developing asbestos-related cancer, because there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. However, every person who breathes asbestos does not develop an asbestos cancer. People who have been exposed should let their doctors know and monitor for any symptoms.
What cancers are caused by asbestos?
- There are four cancers experts have definitively linked to asbestos exposure: mesothelioma, lung cancer, ovarian cancer and laryngeal cancer. Other cancers have also been connected to asbestos exposure, but research is ongoing to determine how related they are.
What are the four major asbestos-related diseases?
- Four major diseases caused by asbestos are pleural mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. There are several subtypes of mesothelioma cancer and lung cancer. Asbestosis is non-cancerous.