What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a carcinogenic mineral mined and manufactured into commercial products such as insulation and floor and ceiling tiles. The cancer-causing substance is durable, fire-resistant, and was once known to be one of the most important naturally occurring minerals throughout the 20th century. Asbestos exposure, however, is hazardous to our health and can cause rare forms of lung cancer and other health conditions. 

When disturbed, the carcinogen easily crumbles and releases a toxic cloud of dust. When exposed, people may inhale or ingest the microscopic fibers. Once the asbestos fibers enter the body, they attach to a protective layer that lubricates the organs in the chest and abdomen, called the mesothelium. If attached, the fibers create friction against the delicate organ tissues, creating the formation of scar tissues. Over time, the scar tissues can lead to the mutation of healthy cells into cancerous (malignant) cells.

Asbestos-related cancers often have a long latency period, in which it can take decades between the time of exposure and diagnosis of cancer. The slow onset of symptoms often leads to a misdiagnosis or a complete overlook of symptoms in general. Many patients receive an advanced-stage diagnosis as a result.

Mesothelioma is the most common cancer linked to exposure to asbestos. The most common form of mesothelioma, called pleural mesothelioma, affects the tissue lining in and around the lung. Other types of mesothelioma include peritoneal mesothelioma (affecting the lining of the abdomen) and pericardial mesothelioma (affecting the lining of the heart). Other life-threatening illnesses, such as asbestosis and lung cancer can occur as the result of prolonged exposure to the carcinogen. 

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer occurs when tumors develop in the lungs. There are two types of lung cancer in which oncologists group, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). Each type can be further broken down into subtypes based on where it spreads (metastasizes) throughout the body and surrounding organs.

Small Cell

SCLC is a fast-growing type of lung cancer. Smoking is the most common cause of Small Cell Lung Cancer. Exposure to asbestos can also cause SCLC. This form of lung cancer is often aggressive and typically forms in the bronchi (breathing tubes) and quickly forms large tumors throughout the body. 

There are two subtypes of SCLC, including oat cell carcinoma and combined small cell carcinoma. Each type differs in how they metastasize throughout the body, how they grow, and how the cells appear when observed through a microscope.

Doctors group the development of SCLC into two stages: limited and extensive. Tumors have only developed in one lung or lymph node on one side of the chest during the limited stage, while the extensive stage means the tumors have metastasized from one lung to another and possibly other organs.

Patients in the limited stage of SCLS have more treatment options in regards to curing the disease, while extensive-state SCLC patients are typically treated with palliative care, which helps relieve symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.

Signs of this asbestos-related lung cancer are similar to other illnesses and often mistaken for them. Patients with undiagnosed SCLC may experience blood in mucus when coughing, chronic cough, fatigue, loss of appetite, pain, tightness, and discomfort in the chest, swollen veins, wheezing, or shortness of breath.

Non-Small Cell

Exposure to asbestos and smoking can also cause Non-Small Cell lung cancer (NSCLC). NSCLC is a group of lung cancers that consist of three main subtypes. Adenocarcinoma (ADC) develops tumors that secrete mucus-like substances and begins in the glands that line the inside of the lungs. ADC is the most common variant of lung cancer and occurs frequently in former or current smokers.

Squamous cell carcinoma is a subtype of NSCLC. It begins the lining of the lung airways and occurs in the squamous cells. These cells are thin and flat and make up the outmost layer of the skin (epidermis) and are also located in the tissue of the lungs, mucous membranes, and urinary tract. The central part of the lungs near the primary airway is where doctors typically find squamous cell carcinoma tumors.

Large cell carcinoma is the last main subgroup of NSCLC and can be located anywhere in the lung. This subgroup often develops more quickly than other subtypes of NSCLC and can be challenging to treat. Symptoms include persistent cough, coughing up blood, hoarse voice, chest pain, shortness of breath, weight loss, fatigue, and loss of appetite.

A rare subtype of NSCLC, called adenosquamous, is a form of lung cancer that contains at least 20% of components from lung adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Sarcomatoid carcinoma is another rare subtype of NSCLC. It can occur in skin, bones, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels, and other connecting tissues.

Pleural Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer affecting various organs, including the chest, abdomen, and lungs. Pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of the disease and occurs in the lungs. This form of cancer most often results from prolonged asbestos exposure. 

There is no safe amount of exposure to asbestos, but the risk for pleural mesothelioma increases with more exposure. People who worked around asbestos-containing products, along with their family members, risk developing pleural mesothelioma. Smoking, however, does not increase the risk for Mesothelioma alone. The combination of smoking and exposure to asbestos may increase chances.

Despite its location, doctors do not consider pleural mesothelioma a type of lung cancer. In rare situations, doctors may sometimes mistake mesothelioma for lung cancer due to its symptoms. Some symptoms of pleural mesothelioma may include cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, and fatigue.