The asbestos-lung cancer connection can be a little confusing because pleural mesothelioma, which is cancer of the lining of the lungs, is often referred to as “asbestos lung cancer.” When mesothelioma spreads to the lung tissue, it is called secondary lung cancer, but it is not the same type of cancer as primary lung cancer which initially develops in the actual lung tissue. Asbestos exposure can cause both mesothelioma and primary lung cancer.
How Asbestos Causes Lung Cancer
Asbestos causes lung cancer in the same way that it causes mesothelioma; it just causes it in different tissues. Asbestos fibers are very tiny and sharp. When they are inhaled they can get lodged in the lungs. When they get lodged in the lungs they cause irritation and inflammation. This can lead to the development of abnormal cells. Those abnormal cells multiply in a disorderly fashion and they outlive normal cells.
Like other asbestos-related illnesses, lung cancer from asbestos can take 20 to 50 years to develop after exposure.
Smokers, Non-Smokers, Asbestos, and Lung Cancer
Smoking is believed to be the leading cause of lung cancer, but a growing number of people who have never smoked are developing lung cancer, including those who have worked with asbestos. Smoking and asbestos exposure have a synergistic carcinogenic effect. Rather than simply adding one risk to the other, when these factors are combined the risk is multiplied:
- A non-smoker who was exposed to asbestos is five times more likely to develop lung cancer than a non-smoker who was not exposed to asbestos.
- Smoking a pack a day for 20 years, is estimated to increase your risk of developing lung cancer by about 10 fold, if you have never worked with asbestos.
- Asbestos workers who are also smokers are 50 to 90 times more likely to develop lung cancer than non-smokers who are not exposed to asbestos.
First of all, you must get an accurate diagnosis. A mesothelioma diagnosis serves as hard evidence that asbestos caused your cancer. Lung cancer, on the other hand, can have many causes. It can be difficult to prove exactly what caused your lung cancer. A known history of asbestos exposure without other asbestos-related illnesses can help prove your case. A diagnosis of asbestosis is even stronger evidence that asbestos caused your lung cancer because it proves that asbestos actually lodged in your lungs creating the same disease process which leads to lung cancer.
Lung Cancer Symptoms
In addition to mesothelioma, asbestos exposure can cause primary lung cancer. Primary lung cancer develops in the lungs. The treatment for primary lung cancer is not the same as mesothelioma treatment, and the prognosis for lung cancer patients is somewhat better than for mesothelioma. Early detection and treatment of lung cancer greatly improves your chance of survival.
Early Symptoms of Lung Cancer
In the earliest stages of lung cancer many patients experience the following symptoms:
- Coughing which lasts more than two weeks
- Blood in sputum
Other symptoms can include:
- Chest pain
- Back pain
- Shoulder pain
- Shortness of breath
- Hoarseness or changes in the voice
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Difficulty swallowing
- Sensory changes
Talk to Your Doctor Right Away
The majority of asbestos-related lung cancer is small cell carcinoma, which is an aggressive form of lung cancer. It spreads very quickly. Unfortunately, the majority of lung cancer victims ignore their symptoms for about a year before they talk to their doctors. When lung cancer is caught early, the chance of survival is much greater. Even after talking to a doctor about the symptoms, diagnosis may be delayed, further delaying proper treatment and reducing the chance of survival.
Lung cancer is often misdiagnosed because the symptoms are so similar to the symptoms of other illnesses. In the early stages, lung cancer may be dismissed by your doctor as asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Misdiagnosis of lung cancer means a delay in treatment which can cost you your life.
Lung cancer also has many of the same symptoms as other asbestos-related illnesses, including mesothelioma and asbestosis. If you experience the symptoms of lung cancer and have a history of asbestos exposure, tell your doctor about your asbestos exposure and insist on thorough testing for asbestos-related illnesses, including lung cancer.
Symptoms of Lung Cancer Which Has Metastasized
It is very common for lung cancer to spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body including the brain, liver, and spine. Symptoms indicating that lung cancer has spread to other parts of the body can include.
- Blurred vision
- Muscle weakness
- Behavioral changes
- Dizziness and vomiting
- Problems with walking and balance
- Impaired memory
Lung Cancer Treatment
Lung cancer treatment depends on the type of lung cancer you have and what stage it is in. Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is the most common type of lung cancer caused by asbestos, but it can also cause non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) which is more responsive to treatment. When mesothelioma invades the lungs, it is called secondary lung cancer, and may still respond to curative treatments.
Treating Small Cell Lung Cancer
Like mesothelioma, SCLC is very aggressive and is usually not detected until it has progressed significantly. SCLC is only divided into two stages:
- Limited – cancer is confined to the chest
- Extensive – cancer has spread to other parts of the body
Surgery is rarely a curative option in SCLC, but is sometimes effective in limited SCLC and is used as a palliative treatment in extensive SCLC. Chemotherapy is used in both limited and extensive SCLC.
SCLC is very sensitive to radiation, so radiation therapy is a standard choice for treating limited SCLC, but is typically a last resort in extensive SCLC because when the cancer has spread the radiation must be applied to too large of an area of the body. In extensive SCLC, radiation is sometimes applied to the brain as a preventative measure because SCLC so commonly metastasizes to the brain.
Treating Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer
NSCLC is typically slower growing and slower to spread than SCLC. NSCLC is broken into Stages 0-IV and even into substages. For stage 0, surgery alone will normally remove the cancer with complete effectiveness because the cancer is confined to the tumor.
In stages I and II surgery alone is the preferred treatment, but may involve removing an entire lung. In patients who do not have the lung capacity to withstand surgical resection, radiation may be used instead.
Stage IIIA NSCLC is typically treated with surgery combined with chemotherapy. If surgery is not a realistic option, chemotherapy is combined with radiation instead. In stage IIIB, surgery is no longer a curative option, so chemotherapy and radiation are used together.
The only curative option for stage IV NSCLC is chemotherapy, but NSCLC is not very responsive to chemotherapy drugs. Radiation and surgery may be used for palliative treatment in stage IV.