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Asbestos Cancer

Researchers have linked asbestos to deadly types of cancer despite its former status as a “miracle mineral.” The aggressive and fatal cancer mesothelioma may develop if asbestos fibers get lodged in the linings of the lungs, abdomen, heart, or testicles. Other asbestos-related cancers may form in the lungs, ovaries, larynx (voice box), and more.

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How Asbestos Causes Cancer

Asbestos — a highly fibrous, durable, and deadly mineral — has been shown to increase the risk of some cancers, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Inhaling asbestos fibers causes mineral particles to enter the body, and once inside they never leave. Asbestos fibers are so strong that they cannot decompose as organic foreign objects do.

Over time, asbestos fibers burrow deeper into healthy tissue. This causes the formation of scar tissue and ultimately cancerous tumors.

Asbestos exposure can cause different cancers depending on where the fibers are lodged in the body.

Notable asbestos cancers include:

  • Laryngeal cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Mesothelioma
  • Ovarian cancer

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

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

Forming Asbestos Cancer Cells

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

Asbestos causes cancer in two ways:

  • Mitosis: Asbestos fibers are thought to penetrate cell walls and damage normal DNA, interrupting the cell division process (mitosis) and causing mutated cells to divide rather than healthy ones.
  • 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.

Cancer cells run amuck by multiplying madly and grouping into tumors — masses of cancerous cells.

There are two different classes of asbestos, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and all of them can cause cancer.

The serpentine class of chrysotile fibers was most commonly used in manufacturing asbestos-containing materials. Chrysotile asbestos is the only type in this group.

The other asbestos class is the amphibole fiber group.

It contains five subclasses:

  • Crocidolite
  • Amosite
  • Tremolite
  • Actinolite
  • Anthophyllite
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.

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

Types of Cancer Caused by Asbestos

Asbestos has been linked to various types of cancer, but some are more clearly linked than others.

The most clearly linked forms of asbestos-related cancer are:

  • Larynx (voice box) cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Mesothelioma
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Cancers found in other abdominal organs

Studies have shown that because it is the most widely used, chrysotile asbestos accounts for the majority of cases of mesothelioma and asbestos-related cancers.

In all cases of asbestos-related cancer, the greater the exposure to asbestos, the greater the individual’s risk of cancer.

Mesothelioma

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 mesothelioma:

  • 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: This is a very rare type of mesothelioma that develops in the lining of the testicles (tunica vaginalis). There are less than 1,000 confirmed testicular mesothelioma cases recorded in medical literature. Scientists know little about how asbestos fibers reach the testicle lining.

Regardless of type, mesothelioma often has a poor outlook for recovery and life expectancy. However, the companies that exposed millions of Americans to asbestos and caused them to develop this terrible disease were forced to set aside asbestos trust funds to compensate their victims.

Victims of mesothelioma are encouraged to seek asbestos trust fund compensation to hold these companies accountable.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer due to asbestos exposure is caused by inhalation or ingestion of the fibrous asbestos particles.

Inhalation can occur from asbestos mining, the manufacturing of asbestos-containing products, or disturbing/breaking down asbestos-containing products.

From there, the asbestos fibers can stick to the lining of the throat and then pass to the lungs. Once in the lungs, these fibers cause irritation that can develop into asbestos lung cancer over time.

Did You Know?

20% of tumors located in the lungs are linked to asbestos exposure.

Asbestos exposure can lead to lung cancer in a two-part process.

In the first part of the process, asbestos fibers embed themselves in the soft inner tissues of the lungs. The asbestos fibers then travel over the soft tissue and make their way into the lung lining.

Once these fibers have been inhaled and taken into the lungs, there is no way for them to be forced out — so they start to create small incisions.

After this process has been completed, the body’s natural reaction is to begin the healing process by trying to cover these small incisions with scar tissue. This can create small or large build-ups over time (tumors).

In some instances, the tumors will become malignant, meaning they have the ability to spread. This process can take anywhere from 20 to 50 years, depending on the individual.

Smoking tobacco products can greatly increase a person’s risk of developing asbestos-related cancer. Patients who smoke were more likely (by a rate of up to 50 times) to contract cancer related to asbestos exposure than non-smokers.

Kidney Cancer

In 2016, a former cement panel cutter passed away from kidney cancer caused by asbestos, with no other evidence of asbestos in other organs.

Researchers are still unsure how asbestos fibers may end up in the kidneys. One conclusion is that when asbestos fibers are ingested, they can flow through the digestive tract and settle in the kidneys.

Once in the kidneys, the fibers may cause scar tissue to form, which could eventually lead to the scar tissue becoming tumorous and then metastasizing (spreading).

When working in an industry that relied on asbestos-containing products, the possibility of ingesting or inhaling asbestos fibers is drastically increased — and so is the possibility of developing asbestos-related cancer.

Other Cancers

In addition to lung cancer and mesothelioma, exposure to asbestos has also been linked to other types of cancer.

Asbestos may cause cancer in the:

  • Larynx
  • Ovaries
  • Pharynx
  • Stomach
  • Colorectum

Laryngeal cancer is a cancer that forms in the larynx (voice box) and is linked to the inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers.

Another form of cancer that is directly linked to asbestos exposure is ovarian cancer. Asbestos fibers may reach the ovaries by migrating across the diaphragm in the peritoneal cavity.

Non-Cancerous Asbestos Diseases

Non-cancerous (benign) diseases may also result from asbestos exposure. Although they are non-cancerous, benign asbestos diseases are still hazardous to an individual’s health and, in some cases, can lead to and be early signs of cancer.

Examples of non-cancerous asbestos diseases are:

  • Asbestosis
  • Atelectasis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Diffuse pleural thickening
  • Pericardial effusion
  • Peritoneal effusion
  • Pleural plaques
  • Pleural effusion

Asbestosis

Asbestosis involves the scarring of the lung tissue due to asbestos fibers. This scarring causes discomfort, pain, and difficulty in breathing.

Similar to other asbestos-related diseases, asbestosis causes the body to try to heal the scars in the lining of the lungs. Though this condition is not fatal, it can lead to more serious health effects such as cardiac or respiratory dysfunction and potentially failure, especially over time.

Pleural Plaques

Pleural plaques are another type of non-cancerous disease associated with exposure to asbestos. These are hardened (calcified) build-ups of collagen, which is a protein naturally produced within the body.

Though not overly deadly on its own, pleural plaques can lead to more aggressive and deadly forms of diseases.

Pleural Effusion

Pleural effusion is another non-cancerous disease caused by asbestos exposure. This disease is a build-up of liquid between layers of lung tissue and the outer layer of the lungs.

Symptoms of these liquid build-ups are difficulty breathing, chest pain, and dry cough, but they can be alleviated by having a doctor drain the effusions from the lungs.

Symptoms of Asbestos Cancer

Symptoms of asbestos cancer can vary depending on where the tumors first form.

Get a breakdown of the symptoms of asbestos cancer below:

  • Pleural Mesothelioma: Symptoms are similar to COPD, which causes difficulty breathing and swallowing, shortness of breath, low oxygen level, fatigue, hoarseness, and pain in the chest, shoulders, upper back, and ribs.
  • Peritoneal Mesothelioma: Symptoms include abdominal cramping, blood in feces (stool), sharp lower torso pain, weight loss, fever, nausea, vomiting blood, and bowel irregularities. Some patients may also feel pain in their ribs and upper back.
  • Pericardial Mesothelioma: Cancer in the pericardium can cause 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.
  • Lung Cancer: Symptoms may include a new cough that doesn’t go away, coughing up blood (even a small amount), shortness of breath, chest pain, hoarseness, excess weight loss, bone pain, and headache.
  • Kidney Cancer: These symptoms may include blood in your urine (may appear pink, red, or cola-colored), pain in your back or side that doesn’t go away, loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss, excess tiredness, and fever (usually intermittent).

In particular, symptoms of mesothelioma have a very long latency period — it’s often not until 20-50 years after someone is first exposed that symptoms appear.

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

Diagnosing Asbestos-Caused Cancer

Doctors typically follow a step-by-step process to diagnose asbestos cancers.

There’s a step-by-step process of asbestos cancers 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: The only way to diagnose mesothelioma and lung cancer is through a biopsy, a test that takes cell samples from a suspected cancer-infected organ. Biopsies can be conducted using needle insertion or surgery.

Mesothelioma is hard asbestos cancer to detect unless the doctors and medical team are familiar with the disease, the symptoms, and if the patient was exposed to asbestos.

Detection usually happens when a mesothelioma victim is in a later stage and experiencing severe symptoms. However, mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed as other diseases — including other types of cancer.

The team at the Mesothelioma Justice Network is available to help victims connect with mesothelioma doctors who have experience treating this type of cancer.

Treating Asbestos-Caused Cancers

Multiple treatment options exist, depending on the type of asbestos-related disease or cancer an individual has been diagnosed with.

Mesothelioma treatments can vary depending on the area in which the disease is affecting. The goal of these treatments is to soothe the patient’s symptoms and, in some cases, prolong their life.

The most common treatments for mesothelioma include:

Lung cancer patients also have the option of surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy.

Another treatment option is targeted therapy, which involves taking pills or intravenous medicines that are directed to a specific area to block the growth and spread of the cancerous cells.

Kidney cancer is typically treated through surgery and other cancer-fighting treatments, which may include immunotherapy. Immunotherapy helps your immune system to fight the cancer, using substances from living organisms.

Next Steps for Asbestos Cancer Victims

Victims of any type of asbestos-related cancer should seek medical treatment from specialists. Asbestos disease specialists will do everything in their power to ensure that the right medical treatment is chosen for you to prolong your survival and improve your quality of life.

Cancer treatments can be expensive, but there are financial options available to you and your loved ones if you qualify. If you have any questions about your options, learn how we can help.

Mesothelioma Support Team
Stephanie KiddWritten by:

Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie Kidd grew up in a family of civil servants, blue-collar workers, and medical caregivers. Upon graduating Summa Cum Laude from Stetson University, she began her career specializing in worker safety regulations and communications. Now, a proud member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) and Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Justice Network, Stephanie serves as a voice for mesothelioma victims and their families.

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