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Asbestos lung cancer develops in lung tissue and is caused by asbestos exposure. It occurs in two main types: small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Combination therapies improve survival for many patients.

01. Lung Cancer Overview

Asbestos and Lung Cancer

Asbestos can cause lung cancer. One study attributed as much as 18% of lung cancer cases to occupational asbestos exposure. Cancer may develop after a person inhales asbestos and its fibers become lodged in the lung tissue. Symptoms, prognosis and treatment options are the same as for any non-asbestos-related lung cancer.

If you suspect you may have been exposed to asbestos, you can talk to a doctor. A healthcare professional can help you watch for signs of asbestos lung cancer. Identifying an asbestos disease early may help improve prognosis.

Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer Quick Facts


Asbestos lung cancer is any lung cancer associated with asbestos exposure.


Inhaled asbestos fibers may become stuck in the lung tissue, which can cause asbestos lung cancer to develop.

Number of cases

Approximately 2,000 – 3,200 people die from asbestos lung cancer each year in the United States.


Common asbestos lung cancer symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath and coughing.

Life expectancy

Lung cancer patients have a median survival of 9 months, although many live for years after diagnosis.


One study of asbestos workers found about 10.5 years passed between asbestos exposure and diagnosis of lung cancer.

Types of Asbestos Lung Cancer

Asbestos exposure may lead to different types of lung cancer. The two main types differ in cancer cell size. They are called small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Between 80% and 85% of all lung cancers are NSCLC.

Each type has different recommended therapies. This means the type of lung cancer affects treatment plans and prognoses. Patients who receive some form of treatment generally live longer than those who do not.

Patients may hear lung cancer referred to as asbestos lung cancer or one of the names referencing cell size. “Asbestos lung cancer” describes the cause of the cancer. “SCLC” and “NSCLC” both describe the cancer cell types in the tumor.

Small Cell Lung Cancer (SCLC)

SCLC is a type of lung cancer composed of smaller cells than NSCLC. It usually starts in the air passages in the lungs (bronchi) and tends to grow and spread faster than NSCLC. Because it grows quickly, SCLC often responds well to chemotherapy.

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC)

NSCLC is a type of lung cancer composed of larger cells than SCLC. Several NSCLC subtypes exist. Subtypes include adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and large cell carcinoma. These subtypes start in different lung cells. The grouping under “NSCLC” reflects similar cell size, prognoses and treatments.

02. How Asbestos Causes Lung Cancer

How Does Asbestos Cause Lung Cancer?

Over time, asbestos may cause lung cancer to develop in three steps. First, a person inhales or ingests asbestos fibers. Second, fibers become lodged in the lung tissue. Finally, fibers may cause inflammation and damage to the tissue, potentially leading to asbestos lung cancer.

Although questions remain about this process, it is well established that asbestos can cause lung cancer.

Asbestos may also cause other cancers like mesothelioma. This cancer can occur when asbestos fibers become lodged in the lining around the lungs (pleura) or abdomen (peritoneum).

Latency Period

Asbestos lung cancer may develop more than 10 years after exposure. The time between asbestos exposure and diagnosis is called the latency period. Asbestos diseases, like lung cancer and mesothelioma, often have long latency periods.

A doctor can provide periodic checks to watch for signs of asbestos disease. Early diagnosis may allow for better lung cancer treatment options and improve outcomes.

How Might You Have Been Exposed to Asbestos?

Asbestos exposure may occur in many ways. The mineral was popular in products and manufacturing processes for much of the 20th century. It can still be found in homes, schools and commercial buildings.

People often do not know when or where they experienced asbestos exposure. Not knowing the source of exposure does not affect treatment options.

Asbestos Exposure at Work

Many people have faced exposure while working at asbestos jobsites. Doctors have diagnosed asbestos diseases in some people who experienced only small exposures. But, the frequent, heavy exposure associated with asbestos jobs can increase the likelihood of asbestos diseases.

Many industries used asbestos until the 1980s, when the mineral’s dangers became common knowledge. Occupations historically linked to asbestos exposure include auto mechanics, insulators and oil refinery workers.

Many workers still face potential asbestos exposure today. For example, construction workers may come into contact with asbestos materials in old buildings. Many states have regulations designed to protect workers with jobs where asbestos may be present.

How Do Doctors Determine if Asbestos Caused Lung Cancer in a Specific Case?

Doctors may attribute lung cancer to asbestos exposure if patients have specific characteristics or conditions, including:

A doctor does not need to determine if asbestos caused a person’s lung cancer to treat it. Determining the cause of cancer is relevant if a person seeks compensation from an asbestos company to help pay for treatment and other expenses.

Risk Factors for Asbestos Lung Cancer

Risk factors for asbestos lung cancer include smoking and exposure to certain minerals. Risk factors are different from causes. The cause of asbestos lung cancer is asbestos exposure. Risk factors may increase the chance of developing cancer after encountering asbestos.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the best way to prevent lung cancer is to not smoke tobacco. Smokers are approximately 20 times more likely than nonsmokers to develop lung cancer.

Exposures to the following substances may increase a person’s risk of developing lung cancer:

  • Air pollution
  • Diesel exhaust
  • Heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and nickel
  • Radiation
  • Silica
  • Tar and soot
  • Tobacco smoke, including secondhand smoke

Researchers have also identified elements that might increase a person’s risk of lung cancer. Potential risk factors include high meat consumption, genetics and HIV infection. Habit changes, exposure avoidance and certain medicines may reduce lung cancer risks. People can talk to their doctors about managing risk factors.

Do Smoking and Asbestos Exposure Increase Cancer Risk?

Both asbestos exposure and smoking can cause lung cancer. People who smoke and have experienced asbestos exposure may have an increased risk of lung cancer. One study looked at three groups of people:

  • Smokers
  • Smokers with a history of asbestos exposure
  • Non-smokers with a history of asbestos exposure

The smokers with past exposure had 4 times the lung cancer risk of the other groups.

03. Symptoms

Common Symptoms of Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

Symptoms of asbestos lung cancer may include chest pain, shortness of breath and a persistent cough. It is also possible to not have any symptoms. Patients exposed to asbestos can ask their doctor to provide periodic screenings for asymptomatic asbestos cancer.

The symptoms of asbestos lung cancer are the same as other lung cancers and include:

  • Bloody phlegm
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Hoarseness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Persistent cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling in the face or neck
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Wheezing

The above are not necessarily signs of asbestos lung cancer. Other conditions can cause fatigue, coughing or any other listed symptom. A doctor’s diagnosis is the only way to determine if you have lung cancer.

04. Diagnosis

Diagnosis of Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

Doctors can give a conclusive diagnosis of asbestos lung cancer only after performing a biopsy. A biopsy collects tissues or fluids that can be tested for cancer. Healthcare providers may perform other tests leading up to a biopsy, including X-rays and CT scans. These additional tests can screen for abnormalities in the lungs.

Asbestos Lung Cancer Biopsy

A biopsy is a medical procedure that helps diagnose asbestos lung cancer. During the procedure, doctors collect a tissue or fluid sample. This sample is then sent to a lab, where a pathologist tests it for cancer cells.

Doctors may use different biopsy procedures to get a sample. For example, doctors may take a fluid sample using a needle. Patients may hear this procedure called thoracentesis (pleurocentesis). Thoracentesis may also be used to remove excess fluid build-up in the lungs.

Asbestos Lung Cancer Screening Tests

Doctors may perform other tests to reach a final asbestos lung cancer diagnosis, including:

  • Chest X-ray: A chest X-ray takes a picture of the upper body. It can identify abnormalities and help rule out certain conditions.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: A CT scan is a series of X-rays that creates a three-dimensional image of the body. It provides a higher level of detail than an isolated X-ray image. CT scans may be able to identify tumor cells that do not appear on a regular X-ray.
  • Lab testing: A doctor may send tissue, blood or urine samples to a lab for analysis.
  • Physical examination: Physical exams can test for lumps, sounds and other potential signs of cancer. A doctor may also ask about family history, smoking history and other topics to help determine the next steps toward a diagnosis.

Along with a biopsy, these tests can help doctors arrive at a correct diagnosis. They can use the data to decide on the best course of treatment for patients.

05. Treatment

Asbestos Lung Cancer Treatment

Doctors may treat asbestos lung cancer with a combination of therapies, including surgery, chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Combining different treatments to help improve survival is called multimodal therapy. Doctors can determine the best course of treatment based on an individual’s unique diagnosis.

Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer Treatment Options


Eligible patients may undergo surgery to remove lung cancer tissue. Doctors may consider surgery for early-stage lung cancer patients.


Doctors may apply chemotherapy in a number of ways to kill fast-growing lung cancer cells. Stage and type of lung cancer inform which chemotherapies may benefit patients.


Immunotherapy helps the body’s immune system attack cancer cells. Several checkpoint inhibitors, a type of immunotherapy, are established lung cancer treatments.


Radiation therapy is often combined with chemotherapy to target areas with lung cancer tumors. Doctors may recommend it for any lung cancer stage.

Photodynamic Therapy

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) uses a light-activated drug to kill cancer cells. Doctors may use it to treat NSCLC.


Cryotherapy uses freezing temperatures to kill cancer cells. Cryotherapy has shown promise in treating NSCLC in patients ineligible for surgery.

Individual treatment plans depend on patient health, cancer stage, type of lung cancer and other factors. An asbestos lung disease specialist can determine the optimal treatment plan for your unique situation.

06. Prognosis and Survival

Prognosis and Survival for Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

Asbestos lung cancer patients have a median survival of 9 months, although many live for years after diagnosis. Factors affecting prognosis include cancer stage at diagnosis, type of cancer (SCLC or NSCLC) and patient health. Advances in screening and treatment continue to improve outcomes for many patients.

One way to measure survival is by the percentage of lung cancer patients alive a specified time after their diagnoses. This statistic is called survival rate.

5-Year Survival Rates for Asbestos Lung Cancer in the United States

Cancer extent at diagnosis Non-small cell lung cancer Small cell lung cancer
Localized 65% 30%
Regional 37% 18%
Distant 9% 3%
Source: American Cancer Society

Note: Asbestos lung cancer is clinically indistinguishable from other lung cancers. Survival rates shown are for all forms of lung cancer, including those unrelated to asbestos.

An individual’s prognosis describes how a doctor expects their cancer to progress based on a number of factors. It isn’t rare for patients to outlive their projected life expectancy. As advancements in screening and treatments continue, survival may further improve for people with asbestos-related diseases.

07. Reducing Risks

Decreasing Lung Cancer Risks

People can take steps to decrease the risk of asbestos lung cancer. Doctors, other experts and various tools can assist in managing cancer risk factors. For example, quitting smoking lowers the risk of lung cancer. Quitting aids ranging from support groups to medical therapies are available.

Other than quitting smoking, people may consider the following actions:

  • Avoid secondhand smoke: Secondhand tobacco smoke is a risk factor for lung cancer. Many states have enacted smoke-free indoor air laws to help prevent secondhand smoke inhalation. If you live in a state without these laws, you can advocate for your legislature to adopt a comprehensive ban.
  • Avoid workplace carcinogens: People who work around certain cancer-causing agents should limit exposures as much as possible. Radioactive materials, inhaled chemicals and diesel exhaust can all increase the risk of lung cancer.
  • Test home for asbestos: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has guidance for what to do if you suspect asbestos in the home. It is important not to disturb or try to identify these materials. Accredited professionals should handle any asbestos testing and removal.

Some evidence also suggests eating a healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables may help protect against lung cancer. Doctors can help you find a dietitian, access quitting smoking aids and answer any risk management questions.

08. Common Questions

Common Questions About Asbestos and Lung Cancer

What’s the difference between mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer?

Malignant mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer are cancers caused by asbestos. They differ in the location of the main tumor. Pleural mesothelioma tumors develop in the lining around the lung (the pleura). Asbestos lung cancer tumors occur inside the lung.

How are asbestosis and lung cancer related?

Asbestos causes both asbestosis and lung cancer. But asbestosis is a form of chronic scar tissue (not cancer), and lung cancer is a malignant tumor. The two lung conditions have many shared symptoms. If a lung cancer patient has asbestosis, it can mean their cancer was caused by asbestos exposure.

Do all asbestos-exposed individuals get lung cancer or mesothelioma?

Not all people exposed to asbestos will develop lung cancer or mesothelioma. But, any exposure is dangerous, and repeated exposures may increase the chance of either disease. An oncology specialist can monitor for symptoms of asbestos cancer in people with a known or suspected history of exposure.

How can I pay for the best asbestos lung cancer treatment?

People who develop asbestos lung cancer may be able to pay for treatment with legal compensation. Many companies exposed workers at jobsites and through asbestos products, even though they knew the dangers the mineral posed. An asbestos attorney can help patients seek compensation from these companies.