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Asbestos and Cancer

Exposure to asbestos can cause a number of malignant diseases. You should understand how asbestos and cancer are related. This will provide insight into your mesothelioma.

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Written by Jenna Campagna, RN

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Fact Checked

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Important Facts to Remember About Asbestos and Cancer

Asbestos is scientifically linked to multiple types of cancer. Remember these five facts to best comprehend the connection:

  • Asbestos fibers are sharp and can irritate cells in your body.
  • Mesothelioma occurs when asbestos reaches the mesothelial linings.
  • Asbestos can also cause lung cancer by aggravating lung tissue.
  • The fibers irritate cells, which changes their DNA.
  • Affected cells do not die like normal and replicate quicker than usual, leading to an overabundance of diseased cells spreading in the body.

How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?

cancer cells being developed by asbestos

Cancer Developed by Asbestos

Asbestos causes cancer by irritating healthy cells. The fibers disrupt the cells’ DNA and cause them to mutate. This mutation leads to cells replicating at an accelerated pace, which can form tumors. These are clumps of cells.

Asbestos and cancer are linked because asbestos is a carcinogen. This is any substance that causes carcinogenesis (the formation of cancer). Tobacco, for instance, is another carcinogen.

Cancerous cells do not follow the same process as healthy cells. They are incapable of communicating with other cells. As a result, they never receive chemical signals to slow down their division.

Cancer cells lose their sensitivity to anti-growth hormones. The combination of uncontrollable cell division and lack of apoptosis (cell death) results in an unnaturally high number of cells in one area of the body.

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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.

Types of Cancer From Asbestos

There are two main asbestos-related cancers: mesothelioma and lung cancer. Another asbestos disease is asbestosis, which is inflammation and scarring of lung tissue. Asbestosis is not a cancer, meaning it doesn’t spread.

Development of Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma develops when microscopic asbestos fibers lodge into the lining covering either the lungs or abdomen. These linings are made up of mesothelial cells.

Usually, the body eradicates these fibers. When the body cannot do so, the mesothelial cells trap the fibers to protect the body.

This process is known as phagocytosis, which protects the body foreign particles, bacteria and dead cells. However, these loose fibers are extremely sharp. They can puncture the cells trapping them.

This leads to genetic mutation of healthy mesothelial cells. These mutated cells don’t stop growing, instead becoming cancerous and forming scar tissue.

Development of Asbestos Lung Cancer

Asbestos can also lead to non-small-cell lung cancer. This is not the same as mesothelioma, but the two diseases share many similarities.

Loose asbestos fibers can cause cells in the lung tissue to mutate in the same manner as mesothelial cells. Unlike mesothelioma, asbestos is not the only cause of lung cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, non-small cell lung cancer makes up 84% of all lung cancer cases. The website Asbestos Nation reports that between 8,000 and 11,000 Americans each year die from asbestos-caused lung cancer.

The latency period for this cancer is around 15-40 years. Many of the symptoms of non-small-cell lung cancer resemble those of mesothelioma (chest pain, shortness of breath and difficulty swallowing).

Treatment options for non-small cell lung cancer are similar to surgeries for mesothelioma. Lung cancer can be treated with a pneumonectomy (entire lung removal), chemotherapy or radiation.

The Basics of Cancer

Each patient is unique. Their body handles the effects of cancer differently than others. It is imperative for you to see a mesothelioma specialist, as an experienced doctor can monitor these distinctive characteristics and create a treatment plan.

normal cell with genetic alteration dividing uncontrollably becoming cancerous

Cancerous Cell Division

All types of cancer have one thing in common: abnormal cell growth. Mutated cells multiply uncontrollably and live longer than they should. This creates an unhealthy excess of cells and an imbalance in your body.

Cancerous Cell Division

normal cell with genetic alteration dividing uncontrollably becoming cancerous

All types of cancer do have one thing in common: abnormal cell growth. Mutated cells multiply uncontrollably and live longer than they should. This creates an unhealthy excess of cells and an imbalance in your body.

Healthy Cell Division

Normal cells grow through a process called mitosis. During this process, a cell divides into two daughter cells with 46 identical sets of genetic material (DNA chromosomes).

Mitosis is how cells reproduce. Healthy cellular growth stops after division occurs a certain number of times.

normal cell with genetic alteration dividing then cell self-destructs normally

Stages of Normal Cell Division

Once cells reach their limit, they undergo a process called apoptosis, which is the medical term for cellular death. Cells must undergo apoptosis to ensure there are not too many cells within the body. This process maintains a necessary balance within your body.

Stages of Normal Cell Division

normal cell with genetic alteration dividing uncontrollably becoming cancerous

Once cells reach their limit, they undergo a process called apoptosis, which is the medical term for cellular death. Cells must undergo apoptosis to ensure there are not too many cells within the body. This process maintains a necessary balance within your body.

Healthy cells signal to each other using tiny protein molecules called cytokines. These molecules are produced by cells in the immune system.

Cytokines let cells communicate with one another, signaling when there are too few or too many cells in an area. They are integral to maintaining the body’s cellular harmony.

Carcinogens disrupt the cells’ DNA and halt the communication process. Cells are not able to signal to one another to stop division.

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