A naturally occurring mineral, asbestos has been definitively linked to the development of several types of cancer. For instance, asbestos exposure is virtually the sole cause of mesothelioma, a malignancy that can develop in the lungs, stomach cavity or heart. Furthermore, this carcinogenic substance is also known to contribute to the development of lung cancer, laryngeal cancer and ovarian cancer.
What is asbestos?
A silicate mineral fiber found in rock and soil throughout the world, asbestos is highly resistant to heat, electricity and corrosion—qualities that make it an effective insulator and fire retardant. As such, asbestos is often found in building materials such as roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, paper goods and cement products.
Asbestos is also highly toxic, and its microscopic fibers are easily released into the air when asbestos-containing materials are disturbed. This can occur during product use, demolition work or building maintenance, repair or remodeling. Once asbestos fibers become airborne, they are easily inhaled or ingested.
Because the body is unable to expel or otherwise rid itself of asbestos, any fibers inhaled or ingested simply remain harbored within the body’s organs and tissues, and more fibers accumulate with each exposure. Over time, the trapped asbestos can cause inflammation, scarring and DNA damage. There is no known way to reverse these effects, and no level of asbestos exposure is considered to be safe.
How can asbestos cause cancer?
Through extensive research, scientists have determined that inhaled or ingested asbestos fibers can become lodged in the tissues surrounding the lungs, stomach cavity and heart, causing cellular changes that eventually lead to the development of mesothelioma. Within the medical community, the precise ways in which asbestos exposure contributes to the development of other types of cancer are not yet fully understood.
Cancers linked to asbestos exposure
Asbestos exposure is confirmed to have a contributory role in the development of several types of cancer, including:
Approximately 80% of all asbestos-related cancer cases involve pleural mesothelioma. This malignancy develops in the pleura, a thin tissue that lines the lungs and chest wall. After needle-like asbestos fibers are inhaled, they tend to become lodged in the lungs and then gradually migrate into the pleural lining over time.
A cancer that develops in the membrane that lines of the stomach cavity (peritoneum), peritoneal mesothelioma develops after microscopic asbestos fibers are ingested or inhaled. Researchers believe the fibers may reach the peritoneum after traveling through the digestive system or the lymphatic system.
A relatively uncommon cancer, pericardial mesothelioma develops in the pericardium, a thin membrane that surrounds and protects the heart. This malignancy accounts for approximately 1% of all mesothelioma diagnoses.
Lung cancer can develop after asbestos fibers are inhaled and become lodged in lung tissues. Approximately 4% of all lung cancer diagnoses are attributable to asbestos exposure, which increases the risk of lung cancer in both smokers and nonsmokers alike.
Within the scientific community, the relationship between asbestos exposure and ovarian cancer is not as well understood as the relationship between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma/lung cancers. Although asbestos fibers have been found in the ovaries of women who were exposed to asbestos, the path those fibers took to reach the ovaries after being inhaled or ingested remains unclear.
Laryngeal cancer is a relatively uncommon malignancy that affects the larynx (voice box). While the main risk factors for laryngeal cancer are smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, asbestos exposure has also been linked to its development.
Symptoms of asbestos-related cancers
Individuals who have a history of asbestos exposure should pay close attention to—and seek prompt medical attention for—possible signs of cancer, such as:
- A dry cough, shortness of breath or chest pain – symptoms of pleural mesothelioma, pericardial mesothelioma and lung cancer
- Nausea or digestive issues – symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma and ovarian cancer
- Menstrual changes or sexual issues – symptoms of ovarian cancer
- Hoarseness or difficulty swallowing – symptoms of pleural mesothelioma and laryngeal cancer
It is important to note that asbestos-related cancers have a long latency period. In fact, many of the cases diagnosed today were caused by occupational asbestos exposure that occurred decades ago.
Risk factors for asbestos-related cancers
Because low levels of asbestos are present in the air, water and soil in many areas, most individuals are exposed to it at some point. However, the majority of people do not become ill or develop cancer as a result of their exposure.
Researchers have identified several factors that can help explain why asbestos exposure affects different people in different ways. These include:
- The concentration of the asbestos (dose)
- The frequency and duration of the exposure
- The size, shape and chemical makeup of the asbestos fibers
- The source of the exposure
- Individual risk factors, such as smoking and pre-existing respiratory conditions
- Genetic factors, such as having a germline mutation in BAP1
Asbestos cancer treatment at Moffitt
At Moffitt Cancer Center, we have extensive experience in treating a wide range of asbestos-related cancers, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, laryngeal cancer and ovarian cancer. We also offer comprehensive screening programs for individuals who have been identified as having an elevated risk of developing asbestos cancer due to a long history of high-dose exposure.
Individuals who were exposed to asbestos on only one or two occasions should not be overly concerned about its adverse health effects. However, those who routinely worked with asbestos, lived with someone who worked with asbestos or lived in an area where the mineral was naturally present in high concentrations may benefit from regular screenings.
To learn more about the various types of asbestos cancer and the steps you can take if you were exposed to this carcinogenic mineral, please call 1-888-663-3488 or complete our new patient registration form online to request an appointment with a specialist at Moffitt Cancer Center.