Today, there's no doubt that asbestos causes cancer. In fact, medical experts are completely satisfied asbestos exposure is the sole cause of mesothelioma—a rare but deadly form of cancer. This horrible disease usually attacks the lining of the lungs which is called the mesothelium. Asbestos exposure also causes other forms of mesothelioma cancer in the abdomen, heart, and testicles as well as other non-mesothelioma types of cancer.
Health Dangers of Asbestos
But for years, the dangers from cancer-causing asbestos were underestimated, ignored and even hidden. Asbestos was once considered the “miracle material” like Life Magazine declared in the 1940s. Asbestos had so many positive properties that made it the choice additive for fireproofing, insulating and strengthening substances. Asbestos was also lightweight, chemically inert and stable when blended into over 3,000 different products.
American manufacturers used millions of tons of raw asbestos during a six-decade height from 1920 to 1980, directly exposing numerous American workers to airborne asbestos. Many innocent people also experienced second-hand asbestos exposure. Tens of thousands died after developing cancer from asbestos. Thousands more may die from it in the years to come.
The exposure caught up with asbestos producers and suppliers when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration blacklisted all asbestos materials as prime carcinogens that solely caused mesothelioma and other cancer forms. Although asbestos is mostly out of production, millions of homes, factories, and mechanical equipment still contain lethal quantities of asbestos.
Thousands of asbestos-caused cancer cases are diagnosed each year in America.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that half of all occupational deaths from cancer are from asbestos exposure.
Approximately 3,000 people develop mesothelioma yearly in the United States alone. Mesothelioma rates are even higher in other nations that don’t have as much awareness about asbestos health hazards.
How Cancer Develops After Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos is a generic or general term for a group of silicate minerals displaying long, stringy fibers. There are two asbestos classifications. One is the serpentine class of chrysotile fibers which are by far the most common type of asbestos used in manufacturing asbestos-containing materials (ACM). 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 and anthophyllite. Amphibole asbestos is much harder and appears spiky and crystalline under a microscope.
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.
Inhaling asbestos fibers causes mineral particles to enter the lungs where they impale into the lung walls. They stick to the lungs like Velcro and cannot be expelled. They also don’t break down and decompose as organic foreign objects do. Eventually, asbestos fibers work through to the lung lining (or mesothelium) and stay there. The body’s immune system naturally forms scar tissue around the foreign fibers which become a hard mass.
Cancer happens when cells act abnormally. That’s a simple statement for a complicated process. Cells that die and get replaced instead mutate their DNA and run amuck by multiplying madly into tumors. No one knows what triggers this or ultimately how to prevent and cure cancer. Indeed, avoiding asbestos exposure is the way to avoid developing mesothelioma. However, for many Americans, the damage was done years ago, and mesothelioma now lies dormant in their bodies.
Asbestos causes cancer in two ways. One is directly where the asbestos fibers change the cell division or mitosis process which starts them mutating. The other cause happens indirectly where 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, and only by asbestos. Exposure to asbestos also contributes to other cancer types like regular lung carcinoma, laryngeal cancer, and ovarian cancer. These diseases also develop from other factors like genetics, diet, and lifestyles like smoking or radiation poisoning. Mesothelioma is different and is caused by exposure — once asbestos exposure occurs, the symptoms of mesothelioma begin to lie dormant in the body.
Mesothelium membranes aren’t only found protecting the lungs, but also other organs like the heart, stomach, testicles, and kidneys. It’s rare, but these internal organs can be affected by asbestos exposure and become different cancer types.
These are the 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 percent of asbestos cancer cases are pleural mesothelioma.
- Peritoneal Mesothelioma: This cancer form attacks the abdominal area and neighboring organs. Membranes around the stomach, liver, kidneys, and spleen are targets for peritoneal mesothelioma. It accounts for less than 10 percent of asbestos-caused cancers as fibers need to travel internally from the lungs to infect these organs.
- 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, with approximately 1 percent of its cases being caused by asbestos.
- 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 also has an independent membrane surrounding the testes.
Asbestos-Related Cancer Symptoms
A mesothelioma is a unique form of cancer because it has a very long latency period then becomes aggressive quickly. Mesothelioma victims often decline fast after the first physical symptoms present. Recorded latency periods are anywhere between 10 to 50 years after asbestos exposure. Usually, by the time symptoms become severe enough to warrant alarm, mesothelioma is well advanced and often too far advanced to control.
Mesothelioma often is 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 COPD where the patient experiences difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, low oxygen level, fatigue, hoarse voice 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 physician 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 significant symptoms. Occasionally, patients are educated about the disease and know their risks based on a historical exposure to asbestos on a large and constant scale.
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.
- 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 in that they enter the body and take cell samples from a suspected cancer-infected organ. Biopsies can be needle insertions, sometimes with camera isolation, or full 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 or chance of patient survival is.
This prognosis depends on these four diagnostic stages:
- Stage 1: First-stage mesothelioma tumors are in one organ. They’re small and hard to detect. Stage 1 cancer hasn’t spread, and surgery may be successful.
- Stage 2: Second-stage tumors have spread throughout the organ and into other regions. 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 various regions. Surgical success is highly unlikely, so the patient is kept comfortable while they manage lifestyle issues.
- Stage 4: Fourth-stage situations are terminal an imminent. Survival prognosis is poor and likely only weeks or a few months. The patient moves to a hospice or palliative unit for pain management and comfort measures.
Compensation for Asbestos-Caused Mesothelioma Victims
Asbestos exposure causes cancer. It’s the sole known source of mesothelioma, and by the time most diagnoses occurs, victims are well into the second or third stage. Patients are encouraged to seek justice and restitution from negligent asbestos manufacturers and producers who supplied cancer-causing asbestos.
There are several requirements when seeking compensation for developing cancer from asbestos exposure. Exposure must have occurred, which depends on the type of asbestos material, the dose or quantity of ACM and the duration or period of exposure time. There also needs a link to the exact asbestos products and proof the manufacturer was negligent in exposing the victim.
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.