Asbestos Cancer

Today, there's no doubt that asbestos causes cancer. In fact, medical experts feel asbestos exposure is the sole known cause of mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer. This disease usually attacks the lining of the lungs, abdomen, heart or testicles. Asbestos exposure can also cause other types of cancer and diseases.

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Health Dangers of Asbestos

For years, the dangers from cancer-causing asbestos were underestimated, ignored and even hidden.

Asbestos had so many positive properties that made it a key ingredient for fireproofing, insulating and strengthening substances. Asbestos was also lightweight, chemically inert and stable when blended into over 3,000 different products. Life magazine called asbestos a “miracle material” in the 1940s.

American manufacturers used millions of tons of raw asbestos during a five-decade height from the 1930s to the early 1980s, directly exposing numerous American workers to airborne asbestos. Many innocent people also experienced secondhand asbestos exposure.

Tens of thousands died after developing cancer from asbestos.

Mesothelioma Rates Today

Approximately 3,000 people are still diagnosed with mesothelioma each year in America. Mesothelioma rates are even higher in other nations that don’t have as much awareness about asbestos health hazards.

The exposure caught up with asbestos producers and suppliers when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) blacklisted all asbestos materials as prime carcinogens that caused mesothelioma and other forms of cancer.

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However, asbestos is still not completely banned in the U.S., and millions of homes, factories, and mechanical equipment still contain the deadly material.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that half of all occupational deaths from cancer are from asbestos exposure.

How Asbestos Causes Cancer

Asbestos is a general term for a group of silicate minerals made up of long, stringy fibers.

There are two asbestos classifications. The serpentine class of chrysotile fibers is by far the most common type of asbestos used in manufacturing asbestos-containing materials. Chrysotile fibers are soft and flexible, making them best for manufacturing into products like insulation and coatings.

The other asbestos class is the amphibole fiber group.

It contains five subclasses:

  • Crocidolite
  • Amosite
  • Transite
  • Actinolite
  • Anthophyllite

The amphibole asbestos class is more dangerous to health than chrysotile fibers. Chrysotile asbestos made up approximately 90% of American asbestos consumption.

It’s critical for anyone exposed to asbestos to know that despite there being different health threat levels among asbestos types, there is no such thing as any safe asbestos exposure.

All asbestos is dangerous regardless of type.

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Inhaling asbestos fibers causes mineral particles to enter the lungs where they impale into the lung walls. They stick to the lung lining and don’t break down and decompose as organic foreign objects do.

Eventually, asbestos fibers work deeper into the lung lining (mesothelium) and stay there. The body’s immune system naturally forms scar tissue around the foreign fibers which become a hard mass.

Forming Mesothelioma Cancer Cells

Cancer develops when cells act abnormally because their DNA becomes damaged. Cancer cells run amuck by multiplying madly and grouping into tumors — masses of cancerous cells. No one knows what triggers this or ultimately how to prevent and cure cancer.

Asbestos causes cancer in two ways:

  1. Mitosis: Asbestos fibers change the cell division or mitosis process which starts them mutating.
  2. Mutation: Mesothelial cells react to the asbestos’ presence and release a mutagenic compound that reacts with blood oxygen and nitrogen. This reaction also causes mutated cell production or cancer.

Types of Cancer Caused by Asbestos

Mesothelioma is one cancer form caused by asbestos.

Exposure to asbestos also contributes to other cancer types like:

  • Laryngeal cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Ovarian cancer

These diseases also develop from other factors like genetics, diet, and lifestyles like smoking or radiation poisoning.

Mesothelioma is different and is only known to be caused by asbestos exposure. Once asbestos has triggered mesothelioma, it may take years for symptoms to develop.

Mesothelium membranes aren’t only found protecting the lungs, but also other organs like the heart, stomach, and testicles. It’s rare, but these internal organs can be affected by asbestos exposure and become different types of mesothelioma.

There are four main types of asbestos-caused mesothelioma cancer:

  • Pleural Mesothelioma: Pleural refers to the lungs and respiratory system. The lungs are relatively large organs with a significant mesothelium membrane area. They’re also the first stop for asbestos fibers entering the body. Approximately 80% of asbestos cancer cases are pleural mesothelioma.
  • Peritoneal Mesothelioma: This type of cancer attacks the abdominal area and neighboring organs. The stomach, liver, kidneys, and spleen are targets for peritoneal mesothelioma. It accounts for roughly 20% of asbestos-caused cancers.
  • Pericardial Mesothelioma: The heart lining is called the pericardium, and it’s also a mesothelium-type membrane. Often misdiagnosed as another cardiac ailment, pericardial cancer is quite rare. It makes up about 1% of all cases of mesothelioma.
  • Testicular Mesothelioma: Asbestos-caused cancer in the testicles is uncommon. There are less than 100 confirmed testicular mesothelioma cases recorded in medical literature. We know little about how asbestos fibers attack the male genitalia, which has an independent membrane surrounding the testes.

Asbestos-Related Cancer Symptoms

Mesothelioma is a unique form of cancer because it has a very long latency period of 20-50 years and then becomes very aggressive. Mesothelioma victims often decline fast after the first physical symptoms appear.

Usually, by the time symptoms become severe enough to warrant alarm, mesothelioma is well advanced and often too far advanced to control.

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Mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed as other diseases including other types of cancer. Each of the four mesothelioma types presents different symptoms. They also depend on the particular cancer stage they’ve reached.

This list describes symptoms for the mesothelioma groups:

  • Pleural Mesothelioma: Symptoms are similar to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which causes difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, low oxygen level, fatigue, hoarseness and difficulty swallowing.
  • Peritoneal Mesothelioma: These symptoms are primarily abdominal cramping, sharp lower torso pain, loss of weight and appetite, fever, nausea, vomiting and bowel irregularities.
  • Pericardial Mesothelioma: Cancer in the pericardium acts much like a heart attack, with sudden chest pain, difficulty breathing, dizziness, and dry mouth.
  • Testicular Mesothelioma: We know little about testicular cancer, and symptoms aren’t well recorded. Pain and testicle malfunction are likely symptoms.

Detecting Asbestos-Caused Cancer

Mesothelioma is hard cancer to detect unless the doctors and medical team are familiar with the disease, the symptoms, and the patient’s personal history. Detection usually happens when a mesothelioma victim is in a later stage and experiencing severe symptoms. Occasionally, patients are educated about the disease and know their risks based on their history of asbestos exposure.

There is no way of positively confirming mesothelioma cases without physically retrieving and examining cells from an affected organ.

There’s a step-by-step process of diagnosing mesothelioma that goes from non-invasive to invasive procedures, including:

  • Imaging Scans: These are usually the first detection step. Non-invasive images look for tell-tale mesothelioma evidence like tumor shadows. X-rays, CT-scans, MRIs and PET scans are common image tests.
  • Blood Tests and Biomarkers: Diagnostic blood tests sometimes accurately isolate cancer cells that are microscopically confirmed by pathologists. More often, blood indicators called biomarkers suggest mesothelioma but warrant further invasive exploration.
  • Biopsies: Biopsies are invasive tests that take cell samples from a suspected cancer-infected organ. Biopsies can be conducted using needle insertion or surgery.

Treating Asbestos-Caused Cancer

Treating mesothelioma cases caused by asbestos exposure is almost always through controlling the disease rather than stopping or curing it. One crucial factor in managing mesothelioma is catching it early. The sooner mesothelioma is detected, the better the prognosis (chance of patient survival) is.

This prognosis depends on these 4 disease stages:

  • Stage 1: First-stage mesothelioma tumors are in one organ. They’re small and hard to detect, but they are contained. Stage 1 cancer hasn’t spread, making it easier to treat.
  • Stage 2: Second-stage tumors have spread throughout the organ and into other parts of the body. Primary tumors are significant, and others are expanding. Surgery remains possible in some cases.
  • Stage 3: Third-stage mesothelioma is beyond control. Cancer has metastasized throughout the body. Surgical success is highly unlikely, so the patient is kept comfortable while they manage the quality of life.
  • Stage 4: Fourth-stage situations are terminal. Survival prognosis is poor, and the patient likely only has weeks or a few months to live. The patient should move to a hospice or palliative unit for pain management and comfort measures.

Compensation for Mesothelioma Victims

Patients are encouraged to seek justice and restitution from negligent asbestos manufacturers and producers who knowingly supplied cancer-causing asbestos.

Taking legal action can result in compensation that can cover treatment costs, helping you gain access to the best therapies that may extend life.

There are several requirements when seeking compensation for asbestos-caused cancer. An experienced mesothelioma lawyer can review your case to see if you qualify and help determine the exact asbestos products and proof the manufacturer was negligent.

Many people living with asbestos cancer have successfully claimed compensation from negligent suppliers. They’ve received payments to cover medical expenses, lost income, and personal injury damages. Families of mesothelioma victims can argue on their behalf. They can also file today for wrongful death lawsuits.

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Author:Stephanie Kidd

Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Justice Network

Stephanie Kidd

Stephanie Kidd works tirelessly as a dedicated advocate for the vulnerable and underrepresented. Stephanie worked as a copywriter for an agency whose focus was communicating safety procedures on construction work sites. With her extensive background in victim advocacy and a dedication to seeing justice done, Stephanie works hard to ensure that all online content is reliable, truthful and helpful.

Last modified: July 11, 2019

View 6 Sources
  1. National Cancer Institute, “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk” https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/asbestos/asbestos-fact-sheet Accessed on 16 December, 2017
  2. U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration, “Asbestos Risks” https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/asbestos/index.html Accessed on 16 December, 2017
  3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Health Effects from Exposure to Asbestos” https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/learn-about-asbestos#effects Accessed on 16 December, 2017
  4. National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Investigating Cancer Risks Related to Asbestos and Other Occupational Carcinogens” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2078489/ Accessed on 16 December, 2017
  5. American Cancer Society, “Asbestos and Cancer Risk” https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/asbestos.html Accessed on 16 December, 2017
  6. National Institute of Health, “Early Diagnosis of Lung Cancer and Mesothelioma in Prior Asbestos Workers” https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00188890 Accessed on 16 December, 2017
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