10 questions about asbestos-related lung cancer

Cancer and health care

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Lung cancer is the deadliest cancer in the US.

According to the American Lung Association, an estimated 158,080 Americans will die of lung cancer in 2016.

Asbestos is a rare cause of lung cancer, and it accounts for about 4 percent of all lung cancer cases in the US.

Smoking is most commonly associated with lung cancer, and for good reason – it’s linked to 90 percent of all cases and deaths.

But you don’t have to smoke to get lung cancer. While rare, it’s important to know some important facts about lung cancer caused by asbestos.

How does asbestos lung cancer develop?

Asbestos-related lung cancer usually develops after frequent and long-term exposure to asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral. Most exposures take place in professional situations. When someone disrupts asbestos or products containing asbestos, toxic fibers are released into the air. When inhaled, these fibers can become trapped in the lungs where they can remain for decades, leading to scarring, inflammation and possibly lung cancer.

Which professions are related to asbestos lung cancer?

Most common professions associated with asbestos exposure are in industrial trade. Older buildings still contain materials that contain high concentrations of fiber asbestos, putting construction workers, roofers, insulation workers, electricians and plumbers at risk. Former factory workers at textile mills, factories, paper mills and power plants were likely exposed to asbestos products. Military veterans, especially those who worked on naval ships before the mid-1970s, are considered to be at high risk of asbestos lung cancer. Other high-risk professions include auto mechanics, HVAC technicians, firefighters and tollbooth workers.

What is the latency period of asbestos lung cancer?

After initial exposure, it can take up to 35 years for asbestos lung cancer to develop. Usually it takes at least 10 years to develop, but studies show that most development occurs between the ages of 30 and 35.

Are all lung cancers the same?

No. There are two primary types of lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) usually develops in the bronchi near the center of the chest. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common type of lung cancer, accounting for 80 percent of all cases. SCLC is more aggressive and more difficult to treat than NSCLC. NSCLC also comes in three primary subtypes. Adenocarcinoma is the most common subtype in non-smokers.

Asbestos lung cancer infographic

Infographic: Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

How Is Asbestos Lung Cancer Diagnosed?

To diagnose asbestos lung cancer, a doctor can perform one or more of the following: X-ray, bronchoscopy, biopsy, or sputum cytology. Due to its long latency period and common early symptoms that may reflect a less serious condition, asbestos lung cancer is usually diagnosed in the later stages of the cancer.

What are the most common symptoms?

Asbestos lung cancer has overlapping symptoms with other asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma. These include difficulty breathing, coughing, chest pain, and fatigue.

What is the survival rate?

Prognosis depends on several factors, including the stage of the cancer, a patient’s age, and overall health, but the average prognosis for lung cancer is about 16 months.

What treatment options are available?

Like forecast, treatment depends on several factors, mainly the stage and type (small cell or non-small cell) cancer. Potential curative treatments such as surgery are usually possible for early stages before the cancer has spread, while common palliative treatments such as chemotherapy make symptoms more bearable and improve the outlook for patients in later stages.

How do smoking or other factors play a role?

Smoking and exposure to asbestos increases the risk of developing lung cancer by up to 90 percent, non-asbestos-related diseases in general. Asbestos and smoking work in synergy. Both expose our lungs to dangerous carcinogens. Inhaling harmful chemicals from cigarette smoke can have a greater impact on lungs that have already been damaged by asbestos.

The American Lung Association estimates that a person with a history of asbestos exposure who also smokes is 50 times more likely to develop lung cancer than non-smokers who have not been exposed to asbestos. Non-smokers with a history of asbestos exposure are five times more likely to develop lung cancer. Exposure to secondhand smoke also increases the risk in people with a history of asbestos exposure.

Is Mesothelioma a Type of Lung Cancer?

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the respiratory tract, but not a type of lung cancer. Pleural mesothelioma, the most common of the four types, forms on the protective lining of the lungs called the pleura.

Know the warning signs and get help

Even if you don’t smoke, you may be at risk for lung cancer.

See a doctor immediately if you have been exposed to asbestos in the past and have symptoms such as difficulty breathing, coughing, or chest pain.

If you do smoke, get help quitting. Smoking-related lung cancer is the most preventable of all cancer deaths. There is also a multiplicative effect between smoking, asbestos exposure and lung cancer.

While avoiding asbestos can prove to be more difficult, care must be taken to avoid unnecessary exposure.

People with a history of asbestos exposure and smoking are most at risk of developing lung cancer or another asbestos-related illness.

Early detection is key in lung cancer and mesothelioma. Consider regular screenings to catch cancer before it progresses and spreads.

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