Overview of Asbestos-Related Cancers
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that causes several medical conditions. These asbestos-related illnesses include several lung diseases and types of cancer. Researchers have conclusively linked the following cancers to asbestos exposure:
- Malignant mesothelioma
- Pleural mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the lungs, known as the pleura)
- Peritoneal mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the abdomen, known as the peritoneum)
- Lung cancer
- Laryngeal cancer (cancer of the voice box)
- Ovarian cancer
Some evidence also suggests asbestos exposure may contribute to the onset of stomach, pharyngeal and colorectal cancers. Pharyngeal cancer is cancer of the pharynx (uppermost part of the throat). As research continues, doctors may attain a better understanding of how asbestos leads to so many forms of cancer.
How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?
Asbestos fibers are small enough to be breathed in or ingested. Once in the body, it is nearly impossible for the immune system to clear them. Thus, asbestos fibers may remain in the body for many years, causing unwanted health effects. Over time, these fibers can cause inflammation and scarring. Eventually, these processes can lead to the development of cancer and other conditions such as asbestosis.
Asbestos cancers can occur in different areas of the body, affecting various types of tissue. As such, each form of asbestos cancer comes with its own unique prognosis and treatment options.
02. Voice Box Cancer
Laryngeal cancer occurs in the voice box, or the tissue around the vocal cords. Risk factors for laryngeal cancer include:
- Asbestos exposure
- Excessive alcohol consumption
This form of cancer may cause symptoms such as a sore throat, persistent cough or ear pain. Doctors can use a number of tests to diagnose laryngeal cancer. These tests may include a physical examination, imaging tests and biopsy procedures and analysis.
Approximately 12,600 new cases of pharyngeal cancer occur each year in the United States. It is unclear how many of those cases may be related to asbestos exposure.
Laryngeal cancer survival depends on several factors, including cancer stage and overall patient health. Depending on the exact location of cancer within the larynx, 5-year survival rates range from 23% to 83%.
Multiple studies have investigated the relationship between asbestos and laryngeal cancer. Several of these studies looked at groups of people with occupational asbestos exposure.
In these groups, researchers found asbestos increased the risk of dying from laryngeal cancer by 43% to more than 167%. This means some studies found asbestos exposure more than doubled a person’s risk of dying from laryngeal cancer.
03. Lung Cancer
Lung cancer develops within the lung tissue. It presents in two main forms: small cell and non-small cell lung cancer (SCLC and NSCLC). Risk factors for lung cancer include:
- Asbestos exposure
- Chronic inflammation
- Exposure to carcinogens including asbestos and radon
Patients with asbestos-related lung cancer may develop symptoms such as coughing, fatigue and shortness of breath. Doctors use a combination of physical examination, imaging, blood and biopsy tests to diagnose lung cancer.
Experts estimate there are around 2,000 – 3,200 lung cancer deaths each year in the United States. A small percentage of these cases may be asbestos-related lung cancers.
Lung cancer prognosis depends on stage at diagnosis, treatment choices and patient factors. Reported 5-year survival rates range from 3% to 63% according to the National Cancer Institute.
The link between asbestos exposure and lung cancer is well established by medical studies. One study included asbestos-exposed workers. In the study, these workers had a 96% higher risk of dying from lung cancer than the average person.
Another study found a relationship between the amount and duration of asbestos exposure and lung cancer risk. This means the risk of dying of lung cancer increased as the intensity of asbestos exposure increased.
04. Ovarian Cancer
Ovarian cancer develops in the ovaries. It may arise in any of three main cell types: epithelial cells, germ cells and stromal cells. Risk factors for ovarian cancer include:
- Asbestos exposure
- Having children after age 35
- Having a family history of ovarian or other cancers
- Having a history of breast cancer
- Increasing age
- Never having a full-term pregnancy
- Undergoing fertility treatment
- Using hormone therapy after menopause
Ovarian cancer patients commonly experience bloating, abdominal pain, a feeling of fullness and urinary urgency. Doctors use an array of common medical tests to diagnose ovarian cancer. These tests may include a physical exam, imaging tests or biopsies.
Experts estimate approximately 21,400 American women will receive an ovarian cancer diagnosis in 2021.
Ovarian cancer prognosis depends on a number of factors. In general, earlier diagnosis leads to better outcomes. Depending on cancer stage, 5-year survival rates for ovarian cancer range from 31% to 98%.
There are relatively few studies investigating the link between asbestos and ovarian cancer. This stems from the fact that men make up the majority of individuals exposed to asbestos at work. However, a couple of large studies have looked at women with a history of occupational asbestos exposure.
One study investigated 1,327 women who helped manufacture asbestos-containing masks. Their risk of dying from ovarian cancer ranged from 48% to 175% higher than the general population.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently released a report on asbestos and cancer. After weighing the available evidence, the IARC group concluded asbestos causes ovarian cancer.
Talcum Powder, Asbestos and Ovarian Cancer
In the past, many women used talcum powder on a daily basis, often in the genital area. Talcum powder comes from talc, a mineral composed of magnesium, silicon and oxygen. However, talc deposits often naturally contain asbestos.
In fact, Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder recently tested positive for asbestos fibers. Johnson & Johnson discontinued its North American talc-based products in 2020. Still, many women may have been exposed to asbestos through contaminated talc products.
At least 35,000 women have filed lawsuits blaming talcum powder for their ovarian cancer diagnoses. Some studies have found a weak association between talc and ovarian cancer. Additionally, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies asbestos-containing talc as “carcinogenic to humans.”
In 2018, a jury in St. Louis awarded nearly $4.7 billion to women suing Johnson & Johnson. The plaintiffs claimed the company’s talc-based products caused them to develop ovarian cancer.
Johnson & Johnson appealed the verdict, and the award was reduced to $2.1 billion in 2020. However, the Supreme Court rejected the company’s subsequent appeal.
05. Other Cancers
Other Cancers Potentially Linked to Asbestos
Many researchers have studied the potential link between asbestos and various cancers. For some cancers, these studies have been contradictory. Some have found a strong connection between asbestos and certain cancers. Others have found no evidence of the same connection.
Additional research is needed to determine the true relationship between asbestos and the cancers below. However, at least some evidence suggests a link between asbestos and each of the cancers below.
Breast cancer occurs in breast tissue. Most cases occur in women, but men can also get breast cancer. Finding a lump or mass in the breast is the most common symptom of breast cancer.
Studies have not established a definitive link between asbestos and breast cancer. However, one study did find a potential link. Researchers investigated cancer reports in nearly 900,000 Finnish women. Some of those women worked in jobs that exposed them to asbestos.
Asbestos exposure was associated with a 10% to 70% increase in breast cancer risk.
Asbestos and Breast Cancer Quick Facts
- Yearly Cases: 300,000*
- Common Symptoms: Lump or mass in the breast
- 5-Year Survival Rate: ~90%
- Asbestos Link: May increase breast cancer risk by 10% to 80%
*This is an estimate of all breast cancer cases, not necessarily asbestos-linked breast cancer.
Colon Cancer and Colorectal Cancers
Colorectal cancer occurs in the colon and rectum. The colon is the portion of the large intestine under the stomach. The rectum is the portion of the large intestine that connects the colon to the anus. Colorectal cancers may be called colon or rectal cancer depending on where they start.
A recent study investigated the link between asbestos and colorectal cancer in 14,515 men. It found asbestos exposure associated with a 14% higher than normal risk of colorectal cancers.
Asbestos and Colorectal Cancer Quick Facts
- Yearly Cases: 150,000*
- Common Symptoms: Sustained bowel habit changes and rectal bleeding or bloody stool
- 5-Year Survival Rate: ~65%
- Asbestos Link: May increase colorectal cancer risk by 14%
*This is an estimate of all colorectal cancer cases, not necessarily asbestos-linked colorectal cancer.
Esophageal cancer is a cancer that develops in the lining of the esophagus. It comes in two main forms: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma.
At least 25 studies have examined the relationship between asbestos exposure and esophageal cancer. One such study looked at cancer rates in nearly 7,000 Australian asbestos miners. The asbestos miners had a 20% higher risk of dying from esophageal cancer than the general public.
Another study looked at cancers in 3,072 asbestos-exposed workers from South Carolina. These workers were 87% more likely to die of esophageal cancer than the average person.
Asbestos and Esophageal Cancer Quick Facts
- Yearly Cases: 19,000*
- Common Symptoms: Difficulty swallowing, chest pain and weight loss
- 5-Year Survival Rate: ~20%
- Asbestos Link: May increase risk for dying of esophageal cancer by 20% to 87%
*This is an estimate of all esophageal cancer cases, not necessarily asbestos-linked esophageal cancer.
Kidney cancer is a cancer that occurs in one or both kidneys. Early kidney cancers might not cause symptoms. When symptoms do arise, they may include bloody urine, back pain on one side and a lump on the side or lower back.
Some studies have failed to find an association between asbestos and kidney cancer. However, a recent study in nearly 3,200 asbestos-exposed men did find a relationship. In this study, any amount of asbestos exposure was associated with a 20% increase in kidney cancer risk. Increasing levels of asbestos exposure were associated with an even higher risk of kidney cancer.
Asbestos and Kidney Cancer Quick Facts
- Yearly Cases: 76,000*
- Common Symptoms: Bloody urine, one-sided back pain and a lump on the side or lower back
- 5-Year Survival Rate: ~76%
- Asbestos Link: May increase kidney cancer risk by 14%
*This is an estimate of all kidney and renal cancer cases, not necessarily asbestos-linked kidney and renal cancer.
Pharyngeal or oropharyngeal cancer is a cancer of the part of the throat just behind the mouth (the pharynx). Almost all pharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas.
A relatively small number of studies have investigated the relationship between asbestos and cancer of the pharynx. One study of 58,279 asbestos-exposed men included 53 cases of pharyngeal cancer. The asbestos-exposed men had more than twice the risk of developing pharyngeal cancer as those without asbestos exposure.
However, the authors noted their study was relatively small. Further research will be necessary to better understand the relationship between asbestos and pharyngeal cancer.
Asbestos and Pharyngeal Cancer Quick Facts
- Yearly Cases: 54,000*
- Common Symptoms: Mouth pain, sore throat and difficulty swallowing
- 5-Year Survival Rate: ~67%
- Asbestos Link: May double pharyngeal cancer risk
*This is an estimate of all oral and pharyngeal cancer cases, not necessarily asbestos-linked oral and pharyngeal cancer.
Prostate cancer is a cancer of the cells in the prostate gland. Most prostate cancers are found through early screening.
Experts estimate approximately 250,000 cases of prostate cancer will be diagnosed in 2021. It is unclear how many of those cases may be related to asbestos. However, some researchers have suggested a link between asbestos and prostate cancer.
A recent study analyzed nearly 16,000 cases of prostate cancer. These cases occurred among a study group of more than 700,000 people. Asbestos exposure increased the risk of prostate cancer by approximately 10%. However, cases of environmental or occupational asbestos exposure carried a 25% increased risk of prostate cancer.
The researchers concluded asbestos exposure seems to increase the risk of prostate cancer.
Asbestos and Prostate Cancer Quick Facts
- Yearly Cases: 250,000*
- Common Symptoms: Urination problems, bloody urine, erectile dysfunction and back or hip pain
- 5-Year Survival Rate: ~98%
- Asbestos Link: May increase prostate cancer risk by approximately 10% to 25%
*This is an estimate of all prostate cancer cases, not necessarily asbestos-linked prostate cancer.
Stomach or gastric cancer is a cancer of the cells in the stomach. Experts estimate approximately 27,000 new cases of stomach cancer will occur in the United States in 2021. Some of them may be asbestos-related, but the evidence is still inconclusive.
A few studies have found a link between asbestos exposure and stomach cancer. Recently, investigators analyzed cancer cases across 32 different medical studies. They found asbestos exposure increased the risk of dying from stomach cancer by 19%.
Another study looked at the incidence of stomach cancer in people exposed to asbestos-contaminated talcum powder. Among more than 580,000 people, the researchers found nearly 22,000 talc users.
Talcum powder-exposed individuals had more than twice the risk of developing stomach cancer versus non-exposed individuals. The researchers concluded there might be a link between (asbestos-contaminated) talc and stomach cancer.
Asbestos and Stomach Cancer Quick Facts
- Yearly Cases: 27,000*
- Common Symptoms: Appetite loss, weight loss and stomach pain
- 5-Year Survival Rate: ~32%
- Asbestos Link: May increase stomach risk by more 19% or more
*This is an estimate of all stomach cancer cases, not necessarily asbestos-linked stomach cancer.
06. What to Do
What to Do if You Were Exposed to Asbestos
Numerous cancers have been linked to asbestos exposure. Individuals with a history of asbestos exposure may want to speak with a physician. Doctors can help advise patients on the best ways to monitor for potential symptoms of asbestos-related cancers and recommend possible screenings.
This may help identify any potential asbestos cancers in an early stage. In general, earlier cancer detection allows more treatment options and better survival.