Exposure to asbestos can put an individual at risk of many different diseases, illnesses and health problems – including lung cancer. Asbestos lung cancer can refer to any cancer of the lung associated with exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a fibrous group of minerals that are carcinogenic, or cancer-causing. Asbestos lung cancer is not mesothelioma; these are two different diseases that come with different prognoses and treatment options.
How Does Asbestos Cause Lung Cancer?
When someone inhales asbestos, the microscopic fibers and particles can become permanently lodged in the lung tissue. Asbestos can cause lung cancer by irritating and inflaming the lung tissues over the course of many years, causing scarring (fibrosis) that can become cancerous over time. In addition to causing irritation, studies show that asbestos may also result in changes to the DNA cells in the lung. This can result in the formation of lung cancer.
Asbestos Lung Cancer Basics
Lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). CDC data found that in 2020, 136,084 people died of lung cancer. This is a significant jump from the second deadliest type of cancer, colorectal cancer, with 51,869 deaths.
The most common cause of lung cancer is cigarette smoking, according to the CDC. Cigarette smoking is linked to about 80 to 90 percent of lung cancer deaths in the United States. However, asbestos can also cause lung cancer. Only a small percentage of lung cancer cases are primarily caused by asbestos exposure.
If a patient is diagnosed with asbestos lung cancer, it means that he or she has a malignant (cancerous) tumor in the lung that has been linked to exposure to asbestos. It can refer to cancer of the lung upper lobe, adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma or thoracic sarcoma.
The two main forms of lung cancer are small cell and non-small cell. Non-small cell is more common and tends to grow and spread less quickly than small cell. Upon diagnosis, these cancer cells will appear small and round under a microscope. Non-small cells, on the other hand, appear larger. Asbestos is a risk factor for both types of cancer.
Common Symptoms of Asbestos Lung Cancer
A patient with asbestos lung cancer may notice symptoms such as a cough that won’t go away or chest pain. The symptoms can worsen if the lung cancer is left untreated and reaches a late stage of progression. Since these symptoms can be associated with a multitude of health conditions, it is necessary to see a doctor or an asbestos medical expert for a lung cancer diagnosis connected specifically to asbestos.
The symptoms of asbestos lung cancer are similar to all types of lung cancer, regardless of the cause. They include:
- Persistent cough
- Cough that worsens over time
- Chest pain or tightness
- Chest discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Wheezing or hoarseness
- Blood in the sputum (coughing up blood)
- Loss of appetite or weight loss
- Swelling of the face or neck
- Chronic respiratory infections
The signs and symptoms of asbestos lung cancer can arise many years after an individual has been exposed to asbestos. The average latency period for asbestos lung cancer is typically 15-35 years. This is less than the latency period for mesothelioma, which is an average of 20-60+ years. The long latency period can make it more difficult for doctors to diagnose a patient correctly with asbestos lung cancer.
Mesothelioma vs. Asbestos Lung Cancer
Mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer are not the same thing. Both are caused by exposure to asbestos and both can be fatal. However, they are characterized by different symptoms and can have different treatment techniques. Mesothelioma develops in the mesothelial tissues, or the thin membrane that surrounds or lines the organs. Asbestos lung cancer develops within the lung itself.
Pleural mesothelioma is the type of mesothelioma that affects the lining of the lungs, or the pleura. It is the most common type of mesothelioma. Asbestos lung cancer, on the other hand, develops within the lung, not its outer lining. Any kind of cancer of the lung tissue that is caused by asbestos fibers can be referred to as asbestos lung cancer. It is not a cancer of the lining of the lungs, however.
The link between asbestos and cancer is well-established in medical literature. For example, all six types of mesothelioma were confirmed as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 1987. In addition to mesothelioma and lung cancer, exposure to asbestos could also cause cancer in other organs, including the ovaries, testes, gastrointestinal tract, larynx and adrenals.
Can Asbestos Lung Cancer Be Prevented?
Avoiding contact with or exposure to asbestos is the primary way to prevent asbestos lung cancer. If an individual never breathes in microscopic asbestos fibers and particles, they cannot become lodged in the lung tissue and cause cancerous tumors. Since there is no cure available for asbestos lung cancer, prevention is key. Avoiding asbestos exposure requires understanding the most common sites and situations where asbestos is found.
Asbestos was mainly used in manufacturing for its fire-resistant properties. This makes it most commonly found in products and materials that would benefit from being flame retardant. Someone could develop lung cancer after direct contact or substantial environmental exposure to any of the following:
- Auto brakes and gaskets
- Ceiling tiles
- Cement and mortar
- Roofing materials
- Spray insulation
- Vinyl floor tiles
Homes, offices and commercial buildings that were constructed prior to the 1980s may contain these asbestos materials. Asbestos particles could be disturbed during a renovation or construction project, emitting them into the air and putting people around at risk of inhaling them.
Occupational Asbestos Exposure
Occupational exposure to asbestos puts people at the highest risk of developing related diseases, including lung cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, prolonged or frequent exposure to asbestos for long periods of time puts people at the highest risk of related diseases. Workers such as veterans, military members, miners, construction workers, shipbuilders and firefighters may be exposed to asbestos regularly, as these occupations tend to deal with products and places that contain asbestos.
Other Risk Factors
An individual’s smoking history, genetics and overall health may also play a role in whether or not he or she develops asbestos lung cancer. Literature in the National Library of Medicine reports that smoking cigarettes and the use of other tobacco products can increase the odds of lung cancer in someone who has been exposed to asbestos. Studies show that asbestos-exposed smokers are more likely to develop asbestos lung cancer than non-smokers. This means that not smoking could help an individual prevent asbestos lung cancer.
Diagnosing Asbestos Lung Cancer
If a patient visits a doctor with symptoms that are connected to lung cancer, the diagnosis process typically begins with a physical examination by a doctor. The physician will check for potential physical signs of this disease, such as lumps on the skin of the chest or wheezing sounds when the patient breathes.
Then, the doctor will use an imaging scan to view the inside of the lungs. This often includes x-rays and CT scans. If a patient has lung cancer, it will appear on imaging scans as abnormal areas of tissue. Laboratory testing may then be used to analyze the patient’s blood, urine or mucus to search for cancer cells.
A biopsy procedure may also be done to test a small tissue sample for cancer. A tissue biopsy is collected for a possible case of lung cancer using a bronchoscope or a long needle, which is placed into the throat and airways of the lungs to extract the biopsy. Confirming asbestos-related lung cancer in particular (compared to other forms of lung cancer) requires a tissue biopsy.
Prognosis for Asbestos Lung Cancer: Is it Always Fatal?
Asbestos lung cancer is a terminal illness with no known cure. Current estimates place the life expectancy of a patient who is diagnosed with asbestos lung cancer at around 16.2 months (source: Cancer Reports). According to the same source, 25 percent of the patients involved in the study achieved a five-year survival rate after being diagnosed with asbestos lung cancer, with treatment.
Patients can often improve their prognoses with surgery and chemotherapy. As with other types of asbestos-related diseases, early detection of asbestos lung cancer can improve a patient’s prognosis. At early stages, a patient will be eligible for more aggressive treatments that might not be an option if the cancer has spread throughout the body.
Factors such as the patient’s smoking history, genetics, overall health, age, pulmonary function, and type and stage of cancer can all affect an asbestos lung cancer prognosis. In addition, how well the patient takes to treatment can affect the survival rate. Patient prognoses and survival rates are best determined by a lung cancer specialist, as each case is unique.
Treating Asbestos Lung Cancer
Although it is not possible to cure asbestos lung cancer, a patient may be able to alleviate his or her symptoms and improve quality of life with a multimodal treatment plan. This is a medical regime that involves multiple types of treatments, such as surgery paired with chemotherapy. The appropriate treatment plan will depend on the stage of the asbestos lung cancer at the time of diagnosis, among other factors.
Treatment options for a patient with asbestos lung cancer often include:
- Surgery to remove cancerous tumors may be an option if the cancer has not yet spread or metastasized throughout the body. Different types of surgeries may be used for tumor removal, such as the removal of an entire lung (pneumonectomy) or the removal of a portion of the lung (wedge resection).
- Chemotherapy is the most common treatment when the cancer has spread from its initial tumor location. Chemotherapy uses powerful chemicals to shrink tumors and kill cancer cells. It can be used in combination with surgery or on its own to treat asbestos lung cancer.
- Radiation therapy is similar to chemotherapy in that it is used to shrink and destroy cancer cells. However, it uses x-rays or other forms of radiation to target cancer cells rather than using chemicals. Radiation therapy may be used in conjunction with chemotherapy.
- Immunotherapy can help the patient’s natural immune system attack and kill cancer cells. It can rely on substances that are created in a lab or taken from the patient’s body to boost the immune system.
- Other therapies may also be effective at combating lung cancer, such as photodynamic therapy (PDT) and cryotherapy. PDT uses light to kill cancer cells and may be recommended if a tumor is blocking the patient’s airway. Cryotherapy uses freezing temperatures to destroy cancer cells.
If a patient is diagnosed in the earlier stages of lung cancer, he or she is more likely to be an eligible candidate for aggressive treatments. These treatments, such as surgery, aim to remove and destroy as many cancer cells as possible to prevent the cancer from spreading. Palliative treatments, on the other hand, are used to make the patient more comfortable and relieve symptoms.
Get Help With an Asbestos Lung Cancer Diagnosis
An illness such as asbestos lung cancer can typically be prevented. A patient who is diagnosed with a cancer associated with asbestos may be eligible for financial compensation from the person or party responsible for exposing the patient to asbestos. This could be an employer, product manufacturer or distributor, property owner, building supervisor, or another party. An asbestos lung cancer claim or lawsuit could pay the victim for medical expenses and other losses.
Help is available if you have asbestos lung cancer. If you are experiencing symptoms of asbestos lung cancer, talk to your doctor or see an asbestos medical expert. If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with lung cancer connected to exposure to asbestos, the attorneys at Bailey & Glasser, LLP can help. Our team of asbestos and lung cancer attorneys can connect you to vital resources and medical specialists in your area.
We can also help you file a claim to pursue compensation for asbestos lung cancer. Our attorneys serve clients nationwide who have been diagnosed with illnesses due to asbestos exposure, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. We have recovered over $90 million in settlements and verdicts for clients within this practice area. Contact us today to discuss how we can help you.