After asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested, they become lodged in internal tissue. Over years and decades, microscopic asbestos fibers cause tumors and uncontrolled cell growth to become asbestos cancer, commonly called mesothelioma. Other asbestos malignancies include ovarian cancer, laryngeal (voice box) cancer, testicular cancer and lung cancer.
Asbestos Cancer: How it Happens
Asbestos – a general name for six types of fibrous minerals — is commonly found in some types of rocks. When asbestos is pulled apart, it disintegrates into microscopic fibers that are impervious to fire, chemicals, heat, water and any other biological process. When the fibers are inhaled or ingested, they settle into tissue. Since natural bodily functions cannot break down asbestos, the fibers cause irritations, inflammation and eventually mutations in DNA that cause cancer.
The World Health Organization (WHO) found that workplace exposure to asbestos causes half of the occupational cancer deaths worldwide. People who work in blue-collar professions are exposed to asbestos and are more commonly diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease. Asbestos cancer is also caused by environmental and secondhand asbestos exposure.
Types of Cancers Caused by Asbestos
The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) also found asbestos a primary cause of four types of cancer: mesothelioma, lung, laryngeal and ovarian. Each type of cancer presents with different symptoms. Asbestos exposure is most commonly associated with lung cancer and mesothelioma. As a result of the various cancers that can affect those exposed to asbestos, there are many active mesothelioma lawsuits.
- Mesothelioma – Asbestos fibers lodged in the lining around the lungs (called the mesothelium) form cancerous tumors and nodules to develop mesothelioma. Mesothelioma takes decades to develop.
- Laryngeal cancer – Asbestos fibers that are inhaled become lodged in the voice box to form cancer. The disease is worsened by smoking, excessive drinking and exposure to other toxins.
- Ovarian cancer – Asbestos that travels through the lymphatic, circulatory or reproductive system becomes lodged in the ovaries and forms cancer. Asbestos cancer has been linked to the use of talcum powder or baby powder.
- Lung cancer – Asbestos fibers stuck in the lung tissue can lead to lung cancer. Like other forms of lung cancer, asbestos lung cancer can take decades to develop.
- Testicular Mesothelioma – Asbestos that attaches to the tissue lining the testes can cause testicular mesothelioma, also called mesothelioma of the tunica vaginalis testis. Doctors are continuing research on how testicular mesothelioma starts.
The IARC also found a causal relationship between asbestos and other types of cancer: colon, stomach and breast. Overall, asbestos is the leading cause of workplace cancers. Worldwide, more than 230,000 people die every year from asbestos-related diseases. Researchers are continuing to study how asbestos leads to changes in DNA.
Mesothelioma forms when asbestos gets trapped in the mesothelium — the thin layer of tissue surrounding the chest organs (heart and lungs), abdominal cavity (stomach) or pelvis (including the testes). Mesothelioma, also called asbestos cancer, most commonly develops in the chest area.
According to the latest information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2,875 new cases of mesothelioma were diagnosed in 2018. The same year, 2,426 people died from asbestos cancer. For every 100,000 people, one new case of mesothelioma was reported, and one person died of the cancer. Since mesothelioma is typically diagnosed at the later stages of the disease, the life expectancy for patients is one to two years without treatment.
Asbestos can lead to lung cancer when the microscopic fibers attach to the inside of the lungs. The fibers cause irritations that create tumors, changes in cell DNA and the growth of cancerous (malignant) cells. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), asbestos lung cancer takes 15 to 35 years to develop. Like mesothelioma, lung cancer is not usually diagnosed until the late disease stages.
Lung cancer survival rates vary widely depending on when it is diagnosed. The NCI found 49% of lung cancer patients at the earliest disease stage (1A) survive five years past a diagnosis. On average overall, about 21.7% of lung cancer patients survive five years beyond a diagnosis.
Cancer of the larynx (voice box) develops when asbestos fibers become trapped in and near the vocal cords at the top of the trachea (windpipe). Since 2006, the National Institutes of Health and other cancer research centers have confirmed the link between laryngeal cancer and asbestos. Studies found smoking and alcohol abuse increases the risk of asbestos-related laryngeal cancer.
Each year, up to 13,000 people are diagnosed with laryngeal cancer. In 2020, an estimated 3,750 people died of the disease. It is unclear how many were directly related to asbestos.
When asbestos is inhaled and travels through the lymphatic system or bloodstream, it can reach the reproductive system, including the ovaries. Recent research has also uncovered asbestos-contaminated talcum powder (or baby powder) as a cause of ovarian cancer. Women also suffer secondary asbestos exposure from men who work in occupations using asbestos.
The American Cancer Society estimates that about 21,410 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2021, and about 13,770 women will die from the disease. One in 78 women in the United States is at risk for developing ovarian cancer and 1 in 108 is at risk for dying from the disease.
Less Common Asbestos Cancers
The International Agency for Research on Cancer also found other forms of cancer linked to asbestos exposure. Researchers are still trying to determine if asbestos is the cause of the cancers or a contributing factor:
- Bile Duct Cancer – Bile ducts move bile from the liver and gallbladder to the small intestines to aid in digestion. Studies in 2020 found a causal link between forms of bile duct cancer and asbestos exposure, but more research needs to be completed.
- Breast Cancer – About 1 in 8 women and 1 in 833 men run the risk of developing breast cancer. Doctors have not uncovered a definitive link between asbestos and breast cancer, but research is ongoing.
- Colon Cancer – Colon cancer, or colorectal cancer, is the third most common type of cancer in the United States. While colon cancer is linked to lifestyle factors, including excessive drinking and smoking, the disease also has a possible link to asbestos exposure.
- Esophageal Cancer – Cancer of the esophagus, or the long tube that runs from the mouth to the stomach, may have a link to asbestos exposure. Like laryngeal cancer, doctors suspect asbestos-linked esophageal cancer is caused when asbestos fibers are inhaled.
- Kidney Cancer – The kidneys filter and remove waste from the blood. Kidney cancer has been linked to lifestyle factors and occupational exposure to heavy metals, herbicides and industrial chemicals. Studies suggest a connection to occupational asbestos as well.
- Leukemia – Physicians are still trying to determine how leukemia, cancer of bone marrow and blood, develops. One study found a possible link between leukemia and childhood asbestos exposure, but more research needs to be completed.
- Pharyngeal Cancer – Commonly called throat cancer, pharyngeal cancer has been linked to lifestyle behaviors, including excessive alcohol consumption and smoking. One study found a weak link between pharyngeal cancer and asbestos exposure. Additional research is being conducted.
- Prostate Cancer – About 1 in 9 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime, with age, obesity and family history as contributing factors. Some studies have implicated asbestos as a factor in developing prostate cancer, but a definite link has yet to be established.
- Stomach Cancer – Links to stomach cancer include smoking, Helicobacter pylori bacteria and a diet heavy in cured meats, preservatives and salt. Stomach cancer has also been linked to exposure to asbestos-tainted talc.
Asbestos Cancer Treatment
Doctors use a variety of protocols to treat asbestos cancer, depending on the severity, type and location of the disease. Individual factors – including the patient’s age and overall health – also determine the treatment protocol. The most common mesothelioma treatments include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Patients who are eligible for surgical resection are usually in the early disease stages.
Patients exposed to asbestos and develop cancer should immediately seek treatment or a second opinion from a mesothelioma specialist. Unlike general oncologists, qualified mesothelioma doctors and specialists can provide the best treatment options for this rare disease, including palliative care. Asbestos-cancer treatment is expensive, but funding options are available.
Finding Help After an Asbestos Related Cancer Diagnosis
For years, mesothelioma attorneys have helped patients determine the best path to getting financial compensation:
- Personal injury claims are for individuals injured by asbestos
- Wrongful death claims are for family members of people who have died as a result of asbestos exposure.
In addition, more than $32 billion in trust fund compensation has been set aside to help asbestos patients. Attorneys can help patients determine if they qualify for funding from multiple trusts.
Mesothelioma attorneys also help patients understand the differences between a settlement vs. a jury trial and what they mean to the overall financial picture. Contact us today for answers to these questions and more:
- What do I need to know after being diagnosed with asbestos-related cancer?
- How do I begin finding a doctor?
- What are my compensation options?
Find Out if you Qualify
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Richard Stewart is a writer, content coordinator and outreach director with over 12 years of experience covering asbestos exposure, mesothelioma, and treatment options. He is passionate about spreading awareness for asbestos and mesothelioma and helping victims find the information and resources they need online.Learn More
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American Cancer Society. Key Statistics for Ovarian Cancer. Retrieved from
Cells. Asbestos and Intrahepatic Cholangiocarcinoma. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7072580/
American Cancer Society. Key Statistics for Breast Cancer in Men. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer-in-men/about/key-statistics.html