Asbestos and Cancer

Quick Summary

The most common cancers caused by exposure to asbestos are mesothelioma and lung cancer. If you receive a diagnosis of cancer that is related to asbestos exposure, the best step is to locate a mesothelioma specialist. These specialists understand treating asbestos-related cancer and can help you improve your life expectancy through surgery, chemotherapy or clinical trials.

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Cancers Linked to Asbestos

Asbestos is a known human carcinogen. Carcinogens are any substances that cause cancer in humans. Asbestos is highly toxic and can cause various lung diseases. The most common asbestos-related cancer is mesothelioma. Lung cancer is the second most common.

  • Mesothelioma Cancer. There are 4 types of mesothelioma. Asbestos is the only known cause. Mesothelioma of the pleura (lining of the lungs) and peritoneum (lining of the abdomen) makeup over 90 percent of all cases. Pericardial mesothelioma affects the lining of the heart and is very rare. Even rarer still is testicular mesothelioma with only a few documented cases ever.
  • Lung Cancer. Asbestos contributes to adenocarcinoma of the lungs. Smokers exposed to asbestos have a higher risk of getting this cancer. Tobacco smoke and asbestos both contain carcinogens that lead to lung cancer. Adenocarcinoma is an aggressive cancer with a prognosis similar to mesothelioma.
  • Other Asbestos-Related Cancers. In rarer cases, asbestos can be a factor in other, generally more common, types of cancer. Asbestos exposure may also cause cancer in the following organs:
    • Larynx (voice box)
    • Ovaries
    • Stomach
    • Colorectum
    • Pharynx (throat)

Studies have demonstrated a clear connection between asbestos and cancers of the larynx and ovaries. The link is less clear for cancers of the stomach, colon, rectum and pharynx. Researchers are still collecting evidence to find out the role of asbestos in these cancers.

A Note on Occupational Cancers

There are many lines of work that could expose workers to carcinogenic substances. People working in chemical plants can come into contact with substances like benzene. Benzene can cause leukemia. Asbestos, however, wasn’t known to cause cancer for years.

Occupational asbestos exposure happened all the time. Workers were exposed to the substance without any type of protection. They believed they were safe. This is partly why asbestos-related cancers make up the greater portion of occupational cancers.

Did you know?

Currently, about 50% of all occupational cancers are related to an asbestos exposure.

People who worked directly with asbestos are at the highest risk of developing asbestos-related cancer. One study evaluated more than 1,000 employees in the asbestos industry. More than 200 of these workers died from cancer. Most of these workers had cancer located in the respiratory tract. This includes lung cancer, cancer of the trachea and bronchial cancer. There were also cancer deaths were from malignancies of the peritoneum and intestines.

What Are the Chances of Getting Cancer from Asbestos?

Most people exposed to asbestos don’t get cancer.

According to the National Institutes of Health, “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.”

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

Excluding occupational asbestos exposure, here are some common risk factors:

  • Older age. It takes asbestos a long time to cause cancer. In some cases, it takes 50 years. So the older one becomes, the greater their chances of developing cancer becomes.
  • Male gender. Asbestos-related cancer patients are often male. This is especially true for mesothelioma patients. This is often because asbestos exposure is common in historically male-dominated professions. However, one study stated that “female mesothelioma incidence tends to be higher in geographic regions with high rates of male mesothelioma incidence.” The conclusion of the authors was that both male and females were being exposed to asbestos in the same way.
  • Smoking. This is a risk factor tied specifically to lung cancer. Researchers have found that smokers with asbestos exposure have higher rates 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.

Quick statistics on asbestos-related cancers:

  • There are approximately 2,000 deaths from mesothelioma per year.
  • Asbestos-related lung cancer deaths float between 2,000 and 3,200 per year.
  • The 5-year survival rate for advanced lung cancer and mesothelioma is between 5% and 10%.

How Asbestos Causes Cancer

Asbestos fibers are easily ingested or inhaled. But they are not easily coughed out. These fibers get embedded into body tissue. Most commonly, asbestos fibers get stuck in the lung tissue and inner parts of the digestive tract. These fibers irritate nearby tissues. They can also travel to other parts of the body. The fibers then cause mutations in healthy cells in surrounding tissue.

Did you know?

There are 2 main types of asbestos: amphibole and chrysotile. Some studies suggest that amphibole asbestos is more harmful than chrysotile. Amphibole asbestos is sharp and more likely to get stuck in the lungs. It may especially increase the risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Asbestos fibers cause cellular mutation by damaging the genetic material (DNA) of the cells. This causes the cells to divide uncontrollably. The unchecked cell growth leads to clumps of tumors. The cancerous cells can continue growing in the tumor or spread to the lymph nodes and other organs.

Asbestos is practically the only cause of mesothelioma. Both smoking and asbestos increase the risk of adenocarcinoma of the lungs. Asbestos and exposure to radon together can also lead to asbestos-related lung cancer. Smoking doesn’t increase your risk of getting mesothelioma.

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

Symptoms of Asbestos Cancer

Asbestos-related cancers usually have non-specific symptoms. For example, lung cancer, mesothelioma, and pneumonia have many symptoms in common.

The lungs are the area of the body most connected to asbestos-related cancer.

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

  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in the chest
  • Problems breathing
  • Dry cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Shoulder pain
  • Pain in the ribs
  • Upper back pain

Asbestos exposure also leads to peritoneal mesothelioma, colorectal cancer, and ovarian cancer.

The common symptoms of these are:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloody stool (fecal matter)
  • Fluid accumulation in the abdomen
  • Changes in bowel function
  • Problems with digestion
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Blood in vomit

If a woman has asbestos-related ovarian cancer, symptoms include:

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

Diagnosis and Treatment of Asbestos-Related Cancers

Many patients don’t have difficult symptoms in the early stages of their disease. It may take several trips to different doctors before someone discovers cancer. Because of disease rarity, diagnosing mesothelioma is particularly difficult.

When symptoms get out of hand a doctor may order imaging scans of the chest or abdomen.

Common imaging tests used to diagnose asbestos cancers are:

  • X-ray
  • PET scan
  • CT scan

Each scan has its own merits depending on the cancer type. Other diagnostic tests for cancer may include a colonoscopy, mammograms or Pap tests.

If imaging tests show an abnormality, doctors need to take a biopsy. A biopsy 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 they the diagnosis, the doctor will create a treatment plan. With mesothelioma, a combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy is the most effective plan. All cancers use these treatments to different degrees. Some cancers are also treated with immunotherapy. This treatment enhances the immune system to attack cancerous cells.

Did you know?

Asbestosis is a noncancerous lung disease caused by asbestos. People with asbestosis may be at risk of developing lung cancer in the future. Asbestosis patients who smoke have a greater chance of lung cancer than non-smoking asbestosis patients.

Asbestos Cancer Treatment and Next Steps

Whether you’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma or lung cancer, the first step is finding a specialist who can treat you. Specialists are experts in second opinions and creating a treatment plan just for you. You and your specialist can explore treatment options from surgery to clinical trials.

  • Asbestos-related cancers are rare and require specialized treatment.
  • Surgery and clinical trials are the best ways to improve your life expectancy.
  • You may be eligible for financial compensation.

After you have a treatment plan, it’s time to look at compensation. There are trust funds set up to help patients with asbestos-related cancer. These funds could help pay for treatment and more. Veterans affected by asbestos can receive disability compensation and pensions from the VA. Learn more about compensation 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.

View Sources

American Cancer Society. “Known and Probable Human Carcinogens.” Retrieved from: Accessed on September 6th, 2017.

National Cancer Institute. “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk.” Retrieved from: Accessed on September 6th, 2017.

Henley, S. Jane. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. “Mesothelioma incidence in 50 states and the District of Columbia, United States, 2003–2008.” 2015. Retrieved from: Accessed on September 6th, 2017.

V McCormack. British Journal of Cancer. “Estimating the asbestos-related lung cancer burden from mesothelioma mortality.” 2012. Retrieved from: Accessed on September 6th, 2017.

O’Reilly, Katherine. American Family Physician. “Asbestos-Related Lung Disease.” Retrieved from: Accessed on September 6th, 2017.

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