Asbestos and Cancer

Inhaling asbestos fibers can result in the development of terminal diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis.

Cancer is developed when healthy cells undergo a genetic mutation that causes turns the cells cancerous. Once this happens, the cells spread to other parts of the body. In the case of mesothelioma which is caused by asbestos fibers becoming lodged in the lining of the lungs, heart, or abdomen, once the cancer forms, it quickly spreads, making treatment difficult.

The Basics of Cancer

One of the interesting things about cancer is how each case is unique. The way one person’s body responds to the threat of the cancerous cells can be quite different from the way another patient responds. These changes make treatment difficult which is why anyone who has been diagnosed with mesothelioma needs to seek out a specialist who has a great deal of experience and really understands and can predict this rare cancer.

We know that carcinogens cause cancer cells to spread throughout the body. The carcinogen creates the perfect environment for healthy cells to go through the mutation that makes them cancerous.

Even though cancer can spread quickly, it often takes years for the carcinogen to alter cell DNA. In the case of asbestos fibers, it generally takes anywhere between 20 – 50 years for the cells to mutate.

The Difference Between Healthy Cells and Cancerous Cells

Carcinogens aren’t the only thing that can influence whether or not a person will develop cancer. Some types of cancer are hereditary, where others like mesothelioma are triggered by the presence carcinogens.

Healthy Cell Division

The process of cell division is called mitosis.  When everything is working properly and the cells are healthy, the two cells that are created by the division are genetically identical. They contain the exact same DNA as one another.

Nature has pre-programmed the cells to divide a set number of times before the division ceases. Most somatic cells are programmed to divide 50 – 60 times. Once they hit the end of their reproductive cycle they go into a stage called apoptosis, cellular suicide.

The entire process, from start to finish, has been named senescence.

When healthy, the cells use cytokines to signal one another. The cytokines are protein molecules created by the immune system and are responsible for letting cells know when an increase in reproduction is needed. They also instruct cells when to slow down reproduction.

Cancer Development

When the DNA within some cells mutate, cancer begins to develop. In mesothelioma, the mutation is triggered by the asbestos fibers lodged in the lining of the lungs and abdomen.

Cancerous cells don’t behave the same way healthy cells do. They’re not responsive to the natural pattern of senescence or apoptosis.

One of the problems with cancer cells is that they’re unable to use the cytokines to communicate and therefore they simply keep reproducing, which results in tumors. If all the cancer cells aren’t removed during surgery, the tumor will simply regrow, which is why the radiation and chemotherapy are used to help kill any cancerous cells that were missed during the surgery.

If the cancer cells aren’t stopped, they continue to destroy healthy cells. The longer this goes on, the more difficult it becomes to treat the condition.

How Mesothelioma Develops

Mesothelioma develops in the same manner of all other forms of cancer. The only abnormality is that it’s triggered by asbestos fibers that have been inhaled and managed to lodge themselves into the lung’s lining. When the body doesn’t expel the fibers, the mesothelioma cells take over and set to work drying to protect the body by growing over-top of the fibers in a process the medical community calls phagocytosis.

It’s the same way scar tissue forms. The problem comes when the healthy cells enveloping the asbestos mutate and turn cancerous. They continue to grow, which causes the patient to have breathing trouble.

Although mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer, the medical community is expanding its knowledge of this fast spreading, frequently fatal type of cancer. As a result, they’re getting better at both detecting and treating the condition. Many of the treatments have helped increase the life expectancy of patients lives.

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Mesothelioma is just one of the health issues asbestos creates, it can also trigger non-small cell lung cancer. Even though this is a completely different type of cancer, it develops in the same manner as mesothelioma. The difference is that instead of tumors forming on the lung’s lining, they form in the lung tissue.

Asbestos is to blame for approximately 4% of all lung cancer diagnoses each year. It often takes doctors 30 – 35 years after the initial exposure to detect any sign of cancer, by which point, it has often become stage 3 or 4.

Types of non-small cell lung cancer include:

  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma which develops in the larger bronchi and squamous cells
  • Large Cell Carcinoma which forms in the outer portion of the lungs
  • Adenocarcinoma which is commonly seen diagnosed in women who don’t have a history of smoking and forms in the outer regions of the lungs

Treatments for non-small cell lung cancer are very similar to mesothelioma treatment and include:

  • Pneumonectomy which results in an entire cancerous lung being removed
  • Lobectomy where an entire lung lobe is removed
  • A combination of chemotherapy and radiation


Even though a patient might never develop mesothelioma, they can still suffer from a non-cancerous condition called asbestosis.

A patient who has developed asbestosis is at an increased risk for developing asbestos-related lung cancer in their future and should be tested frequently. Scarring caused by the asbestosis can make breathing difficult.

Even if you weren’t in direct contact with asbestos you might still be at risk if someone you live with is around the fiber. They could be bringing it home on their clothing, hair, and skin and exposing you, prompting you to experience secondhand exposure.

Symptoms commonly experienced as a result of asbestos exposure include:

  • Frequent chest pain and shortness of breath
  • Chronic cough
  • Lung mucus
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Crackling lung sounds when inhaling

Doctors focus on treating asbestos exposure by trying to prevent the exposure from turning into cancer and providing the patient with symptom relief. Many patients rely on a inhalers and oxygen tanks. Some have received lung transplants.

Pleural Thickening and Pleuritis

When a doctor notices scar tissue building up, the refer to the condition as pleural thickening. The scarring caused by asbestos fibers can create inflammation which leads to symptoms that strongly resemble rheumatoid arthritis.

Asbestos exposure can trigger pleuritis which means that the lung lining has become inflamed. It’s usually a painful condition. Treatment varies from patient to patient and sometimes requires that the lung’s protective pleura be removed.

Risk Factors

There are several risk factors that determine whether or not a patient will develop an asbestos-related illness. These risks include:

  • Whether or not the patient smokes
  • The type of asbestos concentration they were exposed to
  • How long they were exposed to asbestos
  • The type of asbestos the patient inhaled, some forms are more dangerous than others.

Research indicates that most patients were exposed to asbestos while they were working, and since men traditionally work in the industries that bring them into contact with asbestos, there are far more likely to develop asbestos-related diseases.

Member of the military who served in the Navy prior to the 1980’s are at a high risk for developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses.

If you think there is even the smallest chance you were exposed to asbestos, you need to meet with a specialist and get tested for asbestos-related illnesses. The sooner you do, the better. Regular screening for mesothelioma is advised.



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