Throughout history, mankind has unfortunately had to learn about some health risks the hard way. A perfect recent example of this is in the now well-established link between asbestos and lung cancer. Lung cancer is already one of the most dangerous types of cancers one can contract, and knowing that it came from exposure to materials once thought safe can be frustrating.
It’s important to understand that technically, the type of medical condition most commonly linked to asbestos – mesothelioma – isn’t actually an official form of lung cancer. The symptoms are incredibly similar, and the prognosis is often a difficult one. However, there are also other types of lung cancers that are linked to asbestos exposure as well. Modern medicine and pharmaceuticals are making steps to overcome cancers, and it’s well worth understanding more about it in order to get a clear idea as to what this type of diagnosis will entail.
What is Asbestos?
First, it’s worth reviewing what asbestos itself actually is. Asbestos is actually a group of minerals that occur naturally in the environment. These minerals are bundles of fibers that can be separated into threads, and they’re resistant to fire, heat, chemicals, and more. Due to their non-conductive properties, it has long been a component in a variety of industries, in particular in construction, automotive industries, and more.
In the late seventies, asbestos use was banned from the use in certain instances – mainly in wallboard compounds. In 1989, all new uses of asbestos were banned and steps began to be taken to inspect schools and other buildings in order to eliminate the presence of asbestos. However, the widespread application of asbestos up to that point means that a tremendous number of people were exposed to the compounds – and that they’re still experiencing the effects of that exposure.
Mesothelioma and Asbestos Exposure
Mesothelioma is the most common condition caused by asbestos exposure, and it shares a number of symptoms with lung cancer. Potential symptoms including:
- Dry cough
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty breathing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Swelling in the neck or face
- Blood in the fluid coughed up from the lungs
Obviously, these are symptoms of lung cancer as well. But lung cancer actually forms in the lung tissue, while mesothelioma develops in the thin membrane that lines the lungs. It is a malignant growth – a cancer – and it will spread if it’s left untreated. But officially, mesothelioma isn’t a lung cancer due to where it forms.
In order to treat mesothelioma, the most common cancer treatments are usually used. These include chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and the use of new drugs that are undergoing clinical trials.
Risk of Lung Cancer
While mesothelioma is the more common condition that springs from asbestos exposure, lung cancer itself is also a very real problem that is linked to asbestos. In fact, about 5 to 7 percent of all lung cancer cases in the country are connected to asbestos exposure. And while mesothelioma is mentioned more due to the fact that it is directly caused only by asbestos, lung cancer is even deadlier. A recent study found that asbestos kills twice as many people as mesothelioma.
Lung cancer risks are even higher when smokers were exposed to asbestos, and as a result these patients need to be diagnosed quickly. Just as with any other type of cancer, early detection is the key to overcoming the disease. Radiation, chemotherapy, and drugs are all utilized to fight lung cancer.
In both lung cancer and mesothelioma, the cancers themselves are dangerous but it’s also important that they be stopped before they metastasize – move into the bloodstream or other parts of the body. If this occurs, fighting the cancer can be much more difficult and the outlook is much less favorable.
Other Types of Cancers Caused by Asbestos Exposure
While the two issues above are the ones most commonly connected to asbestos exposure, it does have a direct impact on a number of other risk factors. Several other types of cancers have all been linked to asbestos exposure. These include:
- Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
- Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
Each of these cancers can be very dangerous, and seeking treatment is a must for anyone suffering from one of them.
Helsinki Criteria, Lung Cancer, and Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos started to be linked to cancers and other health risk in the 30s, but it took decades before it was finally banned. Today, the causes of certain cancers from asbestos are clear. The issue is that when any asbestos containing product is disturbed, the microscopic fibers are released into the air. If breathed in, those fibers can become trapped in the lungs. There, they will begin to cause inflammation, scarring, and irritation. And this can lead to the development of lung cancer and mesothelioma. Current data suggests that 4% of all lung cancer cases are caused solely by asbestos exposure. About 90% of lung cancer cases are due to smoking, but in many of those cases it’s believed that asbestos could also have played a role in the development of the cancer.
There is actually a clear set of guidelines known as the Helsinki Criteria that are designed to help doctors determine whether or not asbestos is responsible for lung cancer. This criteria includes:
- The lung cancer must develop at least 10 years after asbestos exposure occurs
- A lung biopsy must show higher than normal levels of asbestos fibers in the lung tissue
- Exposure to airborne asbestos must reach 25 fibers per milliliter of air each year
If these things are present, doctors will conclude that lung cancer was caused by asbestos exposure.
If you or someone close to you is diagnosed with lung cancer related to asbestos, it’s important to remember that you do have options for help. There are numerous resources and support groups designed to assist those with asbestos-related cancer, and even financial assistance programs are available for those who qualify. The fight against lung cancer and mesothelioma is difficult, but knowing that you have others there who will help you through it can make a big difference.