Written by: Devin Golden

Lung Cancer From Asbestos

Exposure to asbestos can cause lung cancer, one of the deadliest and most common diseases. Asbestos lung cancer affects thousands of people in the United States each year and has a short life expectancy if untreated. Fortunately, there are numerous treatment options for patients such as yourself or your loved one.

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Important Facts About Asbestos Lung Cancer

  • Asbestos causes an estimated 7,000-11,000 new cases of lung cancer in the United States each year.
  • Elderly men (age 65 and up) make up the majority of people with asbestos lung cancer.
  • There are two types of lung cancer: small-cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Most people have NSCLC.
  • The five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 23%. Life expectancies are better for people with NSCLC than people with small-cell lung cancer.
  • Treatment options for asbestos lung cancer are surgery, immunotherapy, chemotherapy, radiation and targeted therapy.
  • There are four types of surgery for lung cancer. They differ from one another in how much of the lung is removed.

What Is Asbestos Lung Cancer?

Asbestos lung cancer is a malignancy of the lungs that forms due to asbestos exposure. Asbestos can irritate your lung tissue and cause tissue cells to mutate, which leads to the formation of a tumor.

Asbestos lung cancer looks similar to lung cancer caused by smoking or genetics. There is no medical difference in how the cancer is treated. However, asbestos lung cancer can warrant legal claims for the patients or their families. Lawsuits and asbestos trust funds are important aspects of asbestos lung cancer – ones patients and caregivers like yourself should learn about when making legal and financial decisions. They can help pay for your treatment, travel costs, lost wages and more.

What Is Lung Cancer?

Lung cancer is a disease that forms on the surface of your lungs or in your lungs. The disease physically looks like a mass, called a tumor, which can grow and spread.

There are two main types of lung cancer: small-cell lung cancer and non-small-cell lung cancer. Non-small-cell lung cancer, often abbreviated to NSCLC, accounts for around 75% of all lung cancer cases. Small-cell lung cancer makes up the other 25%.

SCLC and NSCLC differ in how the cells appear under a microscope. SCLC has smaller, round cells. They’re less noticeable. NSCLC is defined by larger cells. Both types are carcinoma, a cancer that originates in the epithelial tissue of your skin or the tissue that lines your internal organs (such as your lungs).

According to the National Cancer Institute, there are three subtypes of NSCLC:

NSCLC Cases
NSCLC Cases
NSCLC Cases
  • Adenocarcinoma
    (40% of all lung cancer cases)
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
    (25% of all lung cancer cases)
  • Large cell carcinoma
    (10% of all lung cancer cases)
  • Other (25%)
  • Adenocarcinoma
    (40% of all lung cancer cases)
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
    (25% of all lung cancer cases)
  • Large cell carcinoma
    (10% of all lung cancer cases)
  • Other (25%)

How Lung Cancer Forms and Spreads

Lung cancer is one of the deadliest types of cancer. It forms from altered lung tissue cells. These cells either multiply rapidly – throwing off the cellular balance in the body – or break away from the usual cell life cycle and resist cell death (apoptosis).

The result is the formation of a tissue mass from the overpopulated cells. This mass of tissue is called a tumor.

There are three ways lung cancer spreads:

  • Tissue
  • Lymph nodes
  • Blood

Some cells in the original lung tumor can break away from the mass and emerge in other parts of your body. This is called metastasis, and it’s a sign of advanced (stage 3 or stage 4) lung cancer. The cells can invade healthy tissue elsewhere on your lung, on your other lung, or in the tissue lining around your lung cavity (the pleura).

Lung cancer can also reach the lymph nodes or the bloodstream, which can lead to cells replicating and creating tumors in your brain, spinal cord or other parts of your body.

How Does Asbestos Cause Lung Cancer?

Asbestos causes lung cancer by entering the body and irritating lung tissue. Asbestos in its natural state looks like cloth or threads sewn together. However, asbestos can be disturbed by the slightest touch or breath. This can cause strands of asbestos to break apart and float weightlessly in the air.

These microscopic asbestos strands are sharp, with pointed ends, and invisible to the human eye. When asbestos threads are in the air, they can be inhaled (breathed in) or ingested (swallowed) without your knowledge. This is the first step in how asbestos causes cancer.

These sharp asbestos fibers travel from your nose or mouth into the lung cavity. If the fibers are not expelled from the body, they may embed into the outer layer of your lung tissue. The fibers can stick into tissue linings and cause severe irritation, which leads to genetic changes in tissue cells.

The altered genes can cause cells to replicate uncontrollably and avoid regular cell death, which leads to an overpopulation of cells and tissue. This mass of ever-expanding tissue forms a tumor.

Asbestos lung cancer takes 15-40 years from the time of exposure to the development of a tumor. This is called a latency period.

To review, the step-by-step process for how asbestos lung cancer forms is:

    1
  • Asbestos is disturbed, sending loose threads into the air
  • 2
  • A person inhales or ingests asbestos particles without realizing
  • 3
  • Asbestos advances from the nose or mouth to the lung cavity
  • 4
  • Loose asbestos fibers get stuck in the lung tissue or outer layer of the lungs
  • 5
  • The tissue – made up of cells – undergoes genetic changes
  • 6
  • Between 15 and 40 years pass as the irritable asbestos fibers slowly cause cellular changes in the lung tissue
  • 7
  • The DNA change in the lung tissue cells leads to mutation, which forms a tumor

Other Causes of Lung Cancer

Asbestos is not the only cause of lung cancer. This is different from the other two diseases asbestos exposure can cause: asbestosis (lung tissue scarring) and mesothelioma. Those two health issues are only known to be caused by asbestos. Mesothelioma forms in the small lining around the lungs – called the pleura – or the thin lining around the abdominal cavity (peritoneum).

The two other main causes of lung cancer aside from asbestos fibers are smoking and genetics.

smoking

Tobacco Smoke Causing Lung Cancer

Smoking tobacco is the dominant cause of lung cancer. The American Cancer Society says 80% of lung cancer occurs because the person smoked tobacco and ingested cancerous chemicals. Other lung cancer patients don’t smoke but are exposed to the toxins secondhand from their parents, siblings or kids.

The combination of smoking and asbestos exposure multiplies the risk of lung cancer. Both can cause this disease individually, so the pairing of tobacco smoke and asbestos amplifies the risk of tumors. People who smoke and have altered genes from their parents having lung cancer also have a heightened risk.

genetics

Genetics Causing Lung Cancer

Genetics can cause cancer when people inherit genetic mutations from their parents. These mutations lay dormant for years before emerging later in life. Genetic mutations are not considered a common cause of lung cancer.

The American Cancer Society says genetic changes to a particular chromosome can be passed down from parents to kids. This change to the chromosome is linked to higher rates of lung cancer, even if the person doesn’t smoke.

Other genetic causes of lung cancer are from:

  • A genetic inability to break down cancer-causing chemicals, such as those in tobacco, putting smokers at a higher risk of lung cancer
  • Inheriting faulty DNA repair mechanisms from parents that make genes more susceptible to alterations from radiation
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Find out where you may have been exposed to asbestos

A nation wide list of sites where you or a loved one may have come in contact with asbestos.

How Many People Have Asbestos Lung Cancer?

Lung cancer is the third most common type of cancer, trailing skin cancer, colon cancer (for men) and breast cancer (for women). According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 236,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with lung cancer each year. This equals one person every 2.2 minutes. One in 15 men will develop lung cancer.

An estimated 130,000 people in the U.S. die each year from lung cancer. It is the most deadly cancer in terms of total number of deaths – more than colon cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.

Asbestos lung cancer makes up around 3-5% of all U.S. lung cancer cases. This equals approximately 7,000-11,000 asbestos lung cancer cases each year. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people each year in the U.S. die from asbestos lung cancer.

Who Gets Asbestos Lung Cancer?

Any person can get asbestos lung cancer due to how often corporations used asbestos. The extensive use of this mineral in construction, insulation, electrical wiring, automobile brake parts and more caused occupational asbestos exposure for workers.

Secondhand asbestos exposure or environmental exposure are other ways people were, and still are, put in danger. Environmental exposure happens in places where asbestos was mined – such as Libby, Montana – and secondhand exposure usually occurs when workers carry asbestos into the home on their clothes. Mining for asbestos in the U.S. stopped early in the 21st century.

The population most affected by lung cancer is older men (age 65 and up). The American Cancer Society says the average age at the time of diagnosis is 70 years old.

The American Cancer Society provides more statistics regarding demographics and groups with lung cancer:

  • Black men are around 12% more likely than white men to develop lung cancer.
  • Black women, however, are 16% less likely than white women to develop this disease.
  • While men are far more likely to develop lung cancer, the rates for men are thankfully dropping.

Survival From Asbestos Lung Cancer

Asbestos lung cancer has similar life expectancy and survival rates as other types of lung cancer. The data from American Cancer Society regarding small-cell lung cancer and non-small-cell lung cancer applies to cases of asbestos lung cancer.

The five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 23%, according to data from the American Cancer Society and calculations performed by Mesothelioma Guide. This figure can be misleading, though, as the survival rates differ for the two main types of lung cancer.

If you have non-small-cell lung cancer, your long-term survival chances are better than if you have small-cell lung cancer:

NSCLC has a five-year survival rate of 26%.

SCLC has a five-year survival rate of 7%.

The life expectancy also changes for each stage of lung cancer. If you are diagnosed in the early stages (stage 1 or stage 2) and begin treatment right away, then the five-year survival rate is much higher than the percentage for all stages.

If you are diagnosed in stage 4, the last stage defined by the most cancer growth, then the five-year survival rate is below 10%.

To recap information on lung cancer life expectancy and survival rates:

  • Around 23% of people with lung cancer survive for at least five years
  • Fewer than 10% of people with stage 4 lung cancer survive for five or more years
  • NSCLC has a better life expectancy than SCLC

How to Treat Asbestos Lung Cancer

Treatment for asbestos lung cancer is the same as treating lung cancer not caused by asbestos exposure. The main options for patients such as yourself or your loved one are:

  • Surgery
  • Immunotherapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation
  • Targeted therapies, such as growth inhibitors
  • Clinical trials for novel therapies or new combinations

There are multiple types of surgeries, differing in how much lung is removed. A pneumonectomy is the surgical resection of the entire diseased lung. This is the most extreme type of lung cancer surgery but also ensures most, if not all, cancer cells are removed. Leaving cancer cells behind after surgery can lead to recurrence (return, regrowth).

The other types of lung cancer surgery involve splitting the lung into parts or sections and removing only the parts affected by the tumor or metastasizing cells. These surgeries are:

  • Lobectomy – Your right lung has three lobes, and your left lung has two lobes. Surgeons can remove one lobe or – for the right lung only – two lobes to preserve the undiseased part of your lung.
  • Segmentectomy – Each lung lobe has 2-5 lung segments. Surgeons may remove 1-4 segments to preserve part of the lobe, rather than resecting the entire lobe.
  • Wedge resection – Removal of a small, wedge-shaped part of lung tissue where the tumor resides, usually reserved for an early stage of lung cancer.

Immunotherapy sends drugs into the body to help the immune system fight cancer via the T cells, natural-killer cells and dendritic cells. Immunotherapy often helps the immune system recognize cancer cells as dangerous and provides the directions to target and kill the cells naturally.

Chemotherapy kills cells replicating at a fast pace – this can include cancer cells and healthy cells – in an attempt to wipe away any trace of the disease. Radiation sends high-energy beams into the chest to alter the cancer tissue DNA and cause the cells to die.

Symptoms of Asbestos Lung Cancer

Symptoms of lung cancer are generally the same whether the disease was caused by asbestos exposure or not. However, people may show different symptoms than others.

The main symptoms of asbestos lung cancer involve the respiratory system since a tumor in and on the lungs will affect breathing and other respiratory functions. Those symptoms are:

  • Persistent coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing up blood
  • Wheezing
  • Feeling fatigued
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Repeated pneumonia
  • Swollen glands in the chest
  • Chest pain caused by deep breathing, laughing or coughing

Signs of lung cancer metastasis show in other areas besides the chest or respiratory system:

  • Back pain is a possible sign of cells spreading to the spine.
  • Headaches, dizziness, balance issues, seizures and other central nervous system problems are possible signs of lung cancer spreading to the brain.
  • Swelling of lymph nodes in areas other than the chest is a possible sign of metastasis via the lymphatic system.

Diagnosis Steps for Asbestos Lung Cancer

There are a few tests involved in determining if you have a tumor in one of your lungs. If you are developing new or worsening symptoms, it is important to see your primary physician for further evaluation. This is a crucial first step in the diagnostic process.

Healthy people who don’t show any symptoms can also get tested for lung cancer. A chest X-ray or a low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan are usually offered regularly to people who smoke tobacco or smoked for a long time and quit recently.

Imaging scans

  • X-rays can show abnormalities in your lungs.
  • CT scans can reveal more details about the health of your lung tissue.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans also provide three-dimensional views to detect abnormalities.

Cytology tests

If you have a cough, you may produce fluids usable for a cytology test. Cytology is the science of examining liquid or blood for biomarkers.

Tissue Biopsy

Doctors will remove samples of cells from in or near your lungs to test if they’re diseased. These tests are becoming more advanced and less invasive, often requiring just small incisions and benefiting from robotics assistance.

There are a few options for performing lung tissue biopsies. One is bronchoscopy, in which doctors use a thin, lighted tube (bronchoscope) to reach the airways. Another is a mediastinoscopy, which tests lymph nodes around your lungs via a small surgical incision at the base of your neck.

Another biopsy involves a thin needle through the chest wall and into the lungs. If your cancer has spread beyond the lungs, the biopsy may involve testing tissue in your liver or another organ.

Stages of Lung Cancer

Part of diagnosing lung cancer is staging the disease based on how big the tumor is and how far the cells have spread. Lung cancer stages dictate which treatment options are best for removing all tumors. The stage of lung cancer also determines which treatments are safe to use for each individual case.

Small-cell lung cancer and non-small-cell lung cancer have different stages to classify the growth of the tumor. NSCLC uses the traditional system – stage 4 being the most advanced. Stage 1, stage 2, stage 3 and stage 4 are split into multiple sub-stages, differentiated by tumor size and location of diseased cells.

Stage 0 non-small-cell lung cancer is the earliest detectable stage and is most easily treatable. Another name for stage 0 cancer is in situ, meaning the tumor is remaining in its original place and might be dormant (not malignant). A stage 0 lung cancer can begin in situ but start spreading after diagnosis.

Another stage of NSCLC is the occult stage. This is defined as a hidden tumor or dispersed cancer cells undetectable in imaging scans and diagnosis testing.

Small-cell lung cancer has only two stages:

Limited-stage cancer is any tumor remaining in the lung or that has spread to the space between the lungs (mediastinum) or lymph nodes.

Extensive-stage cancer has spread to other areas of the body aside from the lungs or nearby tissue, meaning the disease has metastasized.

Stages of Lung Cancer

Part of diagnosing lung cancer is staging the disease based on how big the tumor is and how far the cells have spread. Lung cancer stages dictate which treatment options are best for removing all tumors. The stage of lung cancer also determines which treatments are safe to use for each individual case.

Small-cell lung cancer and non-small-cell lung cancer have different stages to classify the growth of the tumor. NSCLC uses the traditional system – stage 4 being the most advanced. Stage 1, stage 2, stage 3 and stage 4 are split into multiple sub-stages, differentiated by tumor size and location of diseased cells.

Small-cell lung cancer has only two stages:

Limited-stage cancer is any tumor remaining in the lung or that has spread to the space between the lungs (mediastinum) or lymph nodes.

Extensive-stage cancer has spread to other areas of the body aside from the lungs or nearby tissue, meaning the disease has metastasized.

Stage 0 non-small-cell lung cancer is the earliest detectable stage and is most easily treatable. Another name for stage 0 cancer is in situ, meaning the tumor is remaining in its original place and might be dormant (not malignant). A stage 0 lung cancer can begin in situ but start spreading after diagnosis.

Another stage of NSCLC is the occult stage. This is defined as a hidden tumor or dispersed cancer cells undetectable in imaging scans and diagnosis testing.

Compensation for Asbestos Lung Cancer

When lung cancer forms from asbestos exposure, the disease is linked to harmful decisions and practices taken by corporations. Manufacturing companies and other businesses willingly exposed workers, consumers and other innocent people to this cancerous toxin. Many of these companies knew asbestos was dangerous and linked to cancer yet continued to prioritize profits over safety and marginalize millions of people’s health.

People who develop lung cancer and have a history of asbestos exposure deserve compensation to cover the cost of treatment, debt from lost wages, shrinking retirement accounts and more. Compensation from asbestos lung cancer can come in various forms:

Asbestos lung cancer lawsuits are made against existing companies that have not filed for bankruptcy. Asbestos trust funds provide compensation when the responsible company or companies is bankrupt and not eligible to defend itself in a lawsuit. Trust funds are bank accounts with a predetermined amount of money to compensate future claimants affected by asbestos diseases like lung cancer.

We recommend discussing your options with a lawyer. The top asbestos lawyers will guide you through each step, whether you’ll file a lawsuit or seek payment from asbestos trust funds.

We can explain exactly how to find an asbestos lawyer and what qualities to look for in your search. Reach out to our patient advocates or legal experts to expedite the process and help you and your family receive justice for your asbestos-caused lung cancer.

Frequently Asked Questions About Asbestos Lung Cancer

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How many people get lung cancer due to asbestos exposure?

Lung cancer is the third most common type of cancer, and a small percentage of cases are due to asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma Guide estimates between 7,000 and 11,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with asbestos lung cancer each year.

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How does asbestos cause lung cancer?

Sharp asbestos fibers travel through your airways and into the lung cavity. If the fibers penetrate lung tissue, the cells’ genetics can change and cause the cells to mutate. Mutated cells replicate quicker than they should and don’t die like they’re supposed to, which causes clumps of mutated cells. This collection of irregular cells forms a tumor.

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What are the signs of asbestos lung cancer?

Persistent coughing, chest pain, shortness of breath, unexplained weight loss and fatigue, wheezing and coughing up blood are all symptoms of lung cancer. After visiting your doctor, you may undergo imaging tests to see if there is a mass around your lungs, which is a visual sign of lung cancer. A biopsy is the only way to definitively tell if you have lung cancer, as doctors remove tissue and test it for cancer proteins, evidence of cell mutations.

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How do doctors tell if my lung cancer is from asbestos exposure?

Smoking tobacco accounts for around 80% of lung cancer cases. Doctors may ask you questions about your work history and whether you smoked tobacco. If you never smoked, or quit many years ago, and you worked jobs that likely put you in close proximity to asbestos (construction, insulation, electrical, mining, manufacturing plant work and automobile repair, to name a few) then asbestos may have caused your lung cancer.

Sources & Author

    1. Key Statistics for Lung Cancer. American Cancer Society. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/lung-cancer/about/key-statistics.html. Accessed: 03/11/2022.
    2. What Is Lung Cancer? American Cancer Society. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/lung-cancer/about/what-is.html. Accessed: 03/11/2022.
    3. Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version. National Cancer Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.gov/types/lung/hp/non-small-cell-lung-treatment-pdq. Accessed: 03/11/2022.
    4. Lung Cancer Survival Rates. American Cancer Society. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/lung-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/survival-rates.html. Accessed: 03/11/2022.
    5. Lung Cancer Causes. American Cancer Society. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/lung-cancer/causes-risks-prevention/what-causes.html. Accessed: 04/14/2022.
    6. Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version. National Cancer Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.gov/types/lung/patient/non-small-cell-lung-treatment-pdq. Accessed: 04/15/2022.
    7. Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version. National Cancer Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.gov/types/lung/patient/small-cell-lung-treatment-pdq. Accessed: 04/15/2022.
    8. Lung Cancer Surgery. American Lung Association. Retrieved from: https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/lung-cancer/treatment/types-of-treatment/lung-cancer-surgery. Accessed: 04/15/2022.
    9. Lung cancer. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lung-cancer/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20374627. Accessed: 04/16/2022.
    10. What Are the Symptoms of Lung Cancer? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/lung/basic_info/symptoms.htm. Accessed: 04/16/2022.
Devin Goldan image

About the Writer, Devin Golden

Devin Golden is the content writer for Mesothelioma Guide. He produces mesothelioma-related content on various mediums, including the Mesothelioma Guide website and social media channels. Devin's objective is to translate complex information regarding mesothelioma into informative, easily absorbable content to help patients and their loved ones.