How Does Asbestos Cause Lung Cancer?
Asbestos is the common name for a group of naturally occurring minerals consisting of long, thin fibers, which are easily inhaled. A history of asbestos exposure has been linked to the development of lung cancer. Experts believe that tiny asbestos fibers are able to circumvent the body’s natural defenses, damaging DNA and causing cells to reproduce uncontrollably. Smoking may significantly increase your risk of developing lung cancer following asbestos exposure.
Prior to the 1980s asbestos was frequently used in building materials and across a wide variety of industries. An affordable material, asbestos was prized for its insulating and flame-retardant properties. Asbestos fibers are most dangers when they are friable, meaning they crumble easily releasing tiny particles fibers which can be inhaled. Risk of exposure can be mitigated when proper safety precautions are taken and asbestos containing materials are left intact and undisturbed.
Although the risks associated with exposure were understood as early as the 1930s, few precautions were taken to protect workers from exposure until the late 20th century. Employees were not only exposed in the work place, but also brought home asbestos fibers on their clothing, where they could subject their loved ones to secondary exposure.
With a latency period as long as 30 years, asbestos related illness diagnoses are currently at their peak. In addition to lung cancer, asbestos exposure can also lead to asbestosis, and a rare cancer known as mesothelioma, which may affect the abdomen or lungs.
Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer Diagnosis
Symptoms of asbestos-related lung cancer include shortness of breath, a persistent cough that becomes worse over time, often with sputum (phlegm) production, chest pain, difficulty swallowing, neck or facial swelling, loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss and anemia. If you suffer from these symptoms, see a doctor immediately.
Your doctor should perform a physical examination, listening for breath sounds and evaluating your lung function. You may need to have blood drawn to determine the level of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood. If your doctor suspects lung cancer, you may undergo a chest x-ray or CT scan. Finally, confirmation of asbestos-related disease may require a lung biopsy, an invasive test performed under anesthesia.
Asbestos Lung Cancer Prognosis and Treatment
As with other cancers, the survival rate and prognosis of asbestos related lung cancer patients will differ depending upon the stage at diagnosis and the type of disease diagnosed. Overall, non-mesothelioma lung cancers caused by asbestos exposure are clinically identical to lung cancers caused by smoking. The five year survival rates for lung cancer vary from less than 5% to more than 70%, depending upon the type of cancer and stage at diagnosis. The five year survival rate for malignant mesothelioma is between 5 and 10%.
As with survival rates, lung cancer treatments vary depending upon their type and stage. Unfortunately, current treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy do not cure lung cancer patients in most cases. The National Cancer Institute encourages patients to consider taking part in clinical trials.