With over 200,000 new diagnoses each year, lung cancer is the second most frequent cancer in the United States. Every year, it is also the main cause of cancer death. Despite the fact that smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, studies estimate that roughly 3–4% of lung cancer cases are due to asbestos exposure.
Asbestos and Lung Cancer
Lung cancer is frequently linked to some form of toxic substance exposure. The vast majority of instances are caused by smoking, while radon exposure is the second most common cause. Despite the fact that asbestos exposure has not been connected to nearly as many instances, research suggests that asbestos-related lung cancer is more common than we believe.
Asbestos exposure is most common in the workplace, but it can also happen at home due to construction projects, deteriorated asbestos goods, or secondhand exposure. Although no quantity of asbestos exposure is deemed safe, researchers do warn that long-term exposure puts people at a higher risk of lung cancer. Our bodies are unable to eliminate the toxin once it has been inhaled, and the asbestos fibers can cause damage over time, eventually leading to asbestos cancer.
Because the majority of mesothelioma cases affect the lungs, many individuals mix the two diseases. However, malignant mesothelioma develops when asbestos fibers scar and cause tumors in the mesothelium, the lining of the lungs. Mesothelioma can also start in other regions of the body, such as the abdominal cavity or the heart lining. Asbestos lung cancer causes the fibers to become stuck in the lung tissue, causing inflammation and scarring over time, which can lead to tumors. Asbestos exposure can result in lung cancer of any form or subtype, including non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer.
Diagnosing the Symptoms of Asbestos Lung Cancer
It takes time for all asbestos cancers and asbestos-related disorders to emerge. Over the course of a decade or longer, the fibers create health problems such as inflammation and scarring. Lung cancer caused by asbestos has a latency period of 15 to 35 years on average.
When lung cancer is caused by asbestos, the symptoms are similar to those of other asbestos-related disorders. Some of the discrepancies in how these asbestos cancers present can be due to the location and formation of the tumors. Because cancer cells are known to proliferate and spread quickly, tumors in mesothelioma often produce a sheath-like formation across the pleura and other afflicted tissues. Lung cancer, on the other hand, tends to establish tumors in more defined parts of the lung at first, however it is also known to spread and grow quickly throughout the body.
Symptoms of Lung Cancer Caused by Asbestos
Cough that does not go away
Pain in the chest
Breathing problems or shortness of breath
Coughing up sputum or phlegm (mucus from the trachea and bronchi)
Loss of weight
Lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure, like mesothelioma, can be difficult to identify early due to the extended latency period and the sometimes ambiguous symptoms that initially appear. These challenges can lead to a misdiagnosis, which can cause therapy to be delayed.
An imaging scan, such as an X-Ray or CT scan, is commonly used to diagnose any abnormalities with the lungs. The X-Ray may reveal any masses or nodules in the lungs, but a CT scan may be required for more detailed imaging of abnormalities in the lungs that are not visible on the X-Ray.
After the initial scans, your doctor may order a sputum cytology test, which examines the cells in sputum (mucus from the respiratory tract that usually implies infection or disease). Sputum samples from people who cough up sputum may indicate malignant cells. Thoracentesis is a procedure that takes a sample of the fluid and tests it for lung cancer cells in individuals who have a fluid buildup in the lungs (pleural effusion).
To confirm the lung cancer diagnosis, a biopsy or tissue sample is usually required. Depending on whatever area of the lung exhibits signs of cancer, your doctor can utilize a variety of procedures to obtain the sample. A bronchoscopy, which can be used to examine malignancies or blockages in the bigger airways, is one of the most common procedures. A tube is introduced through the mouth or nose into the windpipe and subsequently into the bronchi, where smaller instruments can collect tissue and cell samples.
Once the diagnosis has been confirmed, your doctor may order more tests to establish the stage or extent of the cancer so that a treatment plan may be devised.
Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer Survival Rates
The prognosis and survival rates for lung cancer vary greatly depending on the type and stage of the disease. According to the National Cancer Institute, around 18% of lung cancer patients live for 5 years or more. Only 9% of mesothelioma patients live for five years or longer following diagnosis, which isn’t very encouraging.
Treating Asbestos Lung Cancer
Treatment for mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other asbestos cancers is usually multimodal, depending on the stage of the disease. Lung cancer, like mesothelioma, is usually treated with a combination of traditional treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
Surgery followed by chemotherapy is the mainstay of care for patients diagnosed with early stage asbestos-related lung cancer. The type of surgery is determined by the extent to which the tumors are localized. Surgery can involve removing a tiny piece of a lung, an entire lobe, or even a pneumonectomy, which involves removing the entire lung. Pleural mesothelioma is commonly treated with a pneumonectomy or extrapleural pneumonectomy.
With technological improvements in recent years, doctors have been able to execute less intrusive operations for lung cancer. For example, for qualified patients, video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) has become more popular, allowing for a faster recovery period and fewer potential consequences.
Chemotherapy and, in some cases, radiation therapy are given to patients who are candidates for surgical resection. Unfortunately, the majority of individuals are detected when their cancer has progressed to the point where surgery is no longer an option. Chemotherapy and radiation are the most common treatments in these cases. These therapeutic approaches may be used palliatively to improve quality of life for patients who are nearing the end of their lives.
Since clinical trials revealed the treatment to be safe and effective, the FDA has recently approved innovative medicines like immunotherapy to treat lung cancer. Opdivo (nivolumab), Keytruda (pembrolizumab), and TECENTRIQ (atezolizumab) have all been approved by the FDA to treat non-small cell lung cancer since 2015. These and other immunotherapies are still being tested in clinical trials, both alone and in conjunction with other treatments, in the hopes of bringing researchers closer to a cure.
The most frequent type of mesothelioma is cancerous (malignant) mesothelioma, which usually affects the lungs.