Asbestos and Cancer

Quick Summary

Asbestos is a known carcinogen linked to mesothelioma and other cancers. Millions of people — including many U.S. veterans — were exposed to asbestos between the 1930s and 1980s without knowing the risks. Today, veterans with asbestos-caused cancers may be able to get help via legal compensation and/or benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

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How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?

Asbestos and cancer have been linked for decades. Asbestos is a highly durable mineral made up of microscopic fibers. Between the 1930s and 1980s, asbestos was used widely in building and insulation materials in the U.S. military and civilian life.

Manufacturers of products containing asbestos knew their goods could cause a variety of cancers but hid the truth to keep making money.

If someone disturbs an asbestos-based product, tiny fibers can enter the air and be inhaled or swallowed without notice. These fibers then get embedded into different parts of the body, and because they are so durable, they can’t be broken down by the human body.

Over time, DNA of healthy cells is damaged by the asbestos fibers. This causes healthy cells to become cancerous and divide uncontrollably.

Someone exposed to asbestos may develop:

  • Mesothelioma
  • Colon cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Laryngeal cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Rectal cancer
  • Stomach cancer

Every year, thousands of people are diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. While anyone exposed to asbestos could develop cancer, those who worked around asbestos on a regular basis — including U.S. veterans — have an increased risk.

Thankfully, veterans with cancer caused by asbestos exposure may be able to pursue VA benefits and legal compensation.

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Get information on:

  • Treatment Options
  • Cancer Specialists
  • Veterans Benefits

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What Kinds of Cancer Does Asbestos Cause?

As of 2021, 8 different types of cancer have been linked to asbestos exposure. These asbestos-caused cancers are detailed below.

Mesothelioma

Malignant mesothelioma is a highly aggressive and rare cancer that develops in the mesothelium (the lining of the lungs, abdomen, heart, and testes). Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma.

There are 4 types of mesothelioma:

  • Pleural mesothelioma, which forms in the lining of the lungs and is the most common type
  • Peritoneal mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the abdomen and is the most treatable type
  • Pericardial mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the heart and is very rare
  • Testicular mesothelioma, which forms in the lining of the testes and is the rarest of all four types

Approximately 3,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year. Since the military relied on asbestos to make bases, ships, and vehicles until the early 1980s, around 33% of those diagnosed are U.S. veterans.

Lung Cancer

While pleural mesothelioma affects the lining of the lungs specifically, veterans can also develop lung cancer from asbestos exposure.

Lung cancer is the third-most common form of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). While it has many causes, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that asbestos-related lung cancer kills 8,500-10,000 people each year.

Smokers exposed to asbestos on a regular basis have a higher risk of getting this cancer, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). This is because both tobacco smoke and asbestos contain carcinogens that lead to lung cancer.

If you or a loved one developed lung cancer from being exposed to asbestos, compensation may be available.

Get a free veterans packet to learn more.

Gastrointestinal Cancer

Asbestos exposure may cause cancer in any of the organs found in the gastrointestinal tract, like the colon, stomach, and rectum. Scientists are still trying to understand how big of a risk asbestos exposure plays in the development of these cancers.

Colon Cancer

At this time, the link between asbestos and colon cancer is still being studied. However, recent reports have found that asbestos exposure does increase the risk of colon cancer.

Did you know

For example, a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found colon cancer was “significantly associated” with high rates of asbestos exposure among workers.

Past studies have also recovered asbestos fibers from the colon through biopsies (fluid/tissue samples) of those exposed to asbestos.

Additionally, in 2014, the VA granted benefits to a veteran on appeal after it was concluded that he developed colon cancer from military asbestos exposure.

Rectal Cancer

Rectal cancer is closely related to colon cancer since the two are connected within the intestinal system.

A study from Environmental Health Perspectives did not find a notable link between asbestos exposure and rectal cancer due to a lack of cases. However, other studies have noted an increased risk of colorectal cancer among those exposed to asbestos. “Colorectal” is an umbrella term referring to both the colon and the rectum.

Stomach Cancer

If asbestos fibers are swallowed, they may end up in the stomach and become stuck there. A cross-analysis of 36 studies found that asbestos exposure could possibly lead to stomach cancer.

“It is plausible that asbestos fibers could accumulate at sites of mucosal injury and ulceration in the stomach, but the extent to which this occurs in exposed persons has not been investigated.”

– The National Academy of Medicine

Kidney Cancer

Columbia University’s Department of Urology notes that asbestos exposure may increase the risk of kidney cancer.

Several other studies have found a possible link between asbestos and this cancer. A study published in La Medicina del Lavoro, a noted Italian research journal, documents two cases of kidney cancer that may have been caused by asbestos exposure.

Another study published by the Canadian Journal of Public Health found that workers who are exposed to asbestos for longer periods of time have a higher risk of developing kidney cancer later in life.

Mesothelioma Veterans GuideGet a FREE Veterans Packet

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  • Treatment Options
  • Cancer Specialists
  • Veterans Benefits

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Ovarian Cancer

Asbestos has been clearly linked to ovarian cancer through numerous studies and mounting lawsuits against the company Johnson & Johnson® (J&J).

For decades, J&J made its world-famous baby powder from talc, a mineral often found near asbestos in natural rock deposits. Though talc on its own is generally safe, many talc deposits have been found to contain asbestos fibers.

Did you know

Recently unearthed company documents revealed that J&J found asbestos fibers in its baby powder multiple times in its own studies but suppressed the truth.

Many women who used the powder as a feminine hygiene product were diagnosed with ovarian cancer decades later, according to recent lawsuits. In fact, 22 women with ovarian cancer were awarded a $4.69 billion verdict in July 2018 after a jury found that their cancer was connected to J&J talcum powder.

Throat Cancer

In 2006, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) confirmed that asbestos may cause laryngeal cancer, which affects the voice box. More research is needed to see if asbestos exposure increases the risk of other throat cancers.

“For cancer of the throat, the link is strongest for the hypopharynx, the part of the throat closest to the larynx (voice box). It’s not clear exactly how asbestos might affect risk for these cancers, but swallowed asbestos fibers might somehow contribute to the risk.”

– The American Cancer Society

What Are the Chances of Getting Cancer from Asbestos?

The EWG estimates that roughly 160,000-200,000 people died from asbestos-related lung cancer and mesothelioma between 1999 and 2013. Not everyone exposed to asbestos will develop cancer, however.

“People who become ill from asbestos are usually those who are exposed to it on a regular basis, most often in a job where they work directly with the material or through substantial environmental contact.”

– National Institutes of Health

Although the odds of developing an asbestos-related disease increase with more exposure, there’s no amount of safe exposure to asbestos.

If you may have been exposed to asbestos and have been diagnosed with cancer or another illness, get in touch with us today to see what options you may have.

Call (877) 450-8973.

Risk Factors for Asbestos-Caused Cancers

There are several risk factors that may increase your chance of getting asbestos cancer.

  • Older age: Most people who develop asbestos-related cancers are 65 or older. This is because it takes 10-40 years for asbestos diseases to appear.
  • Male gender: Many who develop cancer caused by asbestos — particularly mesothelioma — are male. Asbestos exposure was common in historically male-dominated professions like construction work and military service. However, one study stated that “female mesothelioma incidence tends to be higher in geographic regions with high rates of male mesothelioma incidence.” The authors concluded that both men and women were being exposed to asbestos in the same way.
  • Smoking: This is a risk factor tied specifically to lung cancer. The ACS noted that smokers with asbestos exposure have a higher risk of lung cancer than non-smokers with exposure.
  • Gene mutations: Researchers believe that some patients with gene mutations are more affected by asbestos exposure. These mutations could be caused by radiation, viruses, or genetic variation at birth.

It is also believed that poor nutrition, a sedentary lifestyle, and stress may also increase the risk of asbestos-related cancers.

Mesothelioma Veterans GuideGet a FREE Veterans Packet

Get information on:

  • Treatment Options
  • Cancer Specialists
  • Veterans Benefits

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A Note on Occupational Asbestos Cancers

Occupational asbestos exposure happened all the time, and workers were exposed without knowing the risks since manufacturers hid the truth for decades.

Did you know

About 50% of all occupational cancers are related to asbestos exposure, According to the World Health Organization (WHO).

There are many lines of work that could expose workers to carcinogenic substances like asbestos. People who worked directly with asbestos — such as shipyard workers, mechanics, and pipefitters — are at the highest risk of developing cancer as a result of their prolonged exposure.

U.S. veterans who served between the 1930s and early 1980s also have a higher risk due to widespread asbestos use in the U.S. Armed Forces. The material was used in large amounts to make military bases, vehicles, and ships.

Symptoms of Asbestos Cancer

Asbestos cancers usually have vague symptoms that are shared with noncancerous illnesses. For example, symptoms of mesothelioma may be confused with pneumonia or asbestosis (a noncancerous lung disease caused by asbestos exposure).

Symptoms of lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, and mesothelioma include:

  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Dry cough
  • Pain in the ribs
  • Pleural effusion (fluid buildup in lung lining)
  • Problems breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Shoulder pain
  • Upper back pain

Common symptoms of abdominal asbestos cancers are:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloody stool
  • Blood in vomit
  • Changes in bowel function
  • Fluid accumulation in the abdomen
  • Nausea
  • Problems with digestion
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss

If a woman has ovarian cancer, symptoms may include:

  • Back pain
  • Menstrual abnormalities
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Tiredness or exhaustion

Diagnosis and Treatment of Asbestos Cancers

If you think you have cancer related to asbestos exposure, the best step is to locate a specialized oncologist (cancer doctor) who can help properly diagnose and treat you.

Because the symptoms are often vague, diagnosing mesothelioma or other cancers caused by asbestos may be difficult. Oncologists may order imaging scans of the affected area to see if cancerous tumors have formed.

Common tests used to diagnose asbestos cancers are:

  • CT scans
  • PET scans
  • X-rays

If imaging tests show an abnormality, doctors will likely take a biopsy, which is a sample of fluid or tissue from the potentially cancerous area. A pathologist examines the sample under a microscope to confirm if there is cancer present.

After the diagnosis, the doctor will create a treatment plan. Surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy are commonly used treatments for mesothelioma. Many other cancers will also be treated with one or more of these same methods.

Some cancers are also treated with immunotherapy. This treatment enhances the immune system to attack cancerous cells.

You can get a better idea of how mesothelioma and other asbestos cancers are diagnosed and treated with our free veterans packet.

Mesothelioma Veterans GuideGet a FREE Veterans Packet

Get information on:

  • Treatment Options
  • Cancer Specialists
  • Veterans Benefits

Get a Free Veterans Packet

Next Steps for Those With Asbestos Cancer

If you or a loved one developed mesothelioma or another cancer from asbestos exposure, get in touch with our team today. Our Patient Advocates can help you navigate life after a diagnosis and get benefits without any extra stress.

Our team can assist with:

  • Filing a VA benefits claim
  • Pursuing compensation from the makers of asbestos-based products
  • Getting justice and peace of mind

VA benefits and compensation can help you and your family for years to come. See if you can file for VA benefits now.

Veterans Support Team
Todd Gersten, MD PhotoReviewed by:Todd Gersten, MD

Double Board-Certified Oncologist and Hematologist

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Todd Gersten, MD is a double board-certified medical oncologist and hematologist specializing in general adult oncology and hematologic disease. He is a physician partner with the Florida Cancer Specialists and practices in Wellington, Florida.

Dr. Todd Gersten is an independently paid medical reviewer.

Christopher Dryfoos PhotoWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos is a journalist and member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). As the grandson of the U.S. Navy’s first forensic pathologist, he aims to help veterans with mesothelioma access needed care.

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