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Mesothelioma and lung cancer are two conditions most commonly associated with asbestos exposure. Even though they affect different parts of the body, both of these cancers can reduce a patient’s respiratory function and cause a number of other internal complications.
The Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have all declared asbestos to be a human carcinogen. According to these organizations decades of research, asbestos exposure can lead to the development of both lung cancer and mesothelioma.
While mesothelioma occurs in the lining of the lungs (called the mesothelial lining), asbestos lung cancer occurs in the actual lungs. When asbestos is inhaled, it can become trapped within the lungs or its lining. It is difficult to expel these strong fibers from the body, and once they are inhaled or ingested, they can trigger biological changes that cause healthy cells to become cancerous.
A person’s biological response to the fibers is partially determined by a number of factors, such as the length of the fiber, chemistry of the fiber and the area in which the fibers were lodged, immune response, and genetic response to cellular damage. Typically, the higher the level of asbestos exposure, the higher the person’s risk of developing lung cancer becomes.
While smoking can increase a person’s risk for developing lung cancer, the disease can also occur in asbestos-exposed non-smokers. One study found that vermiculite miners who were exposed to tremolite and actinolite asbestos had six times the risk of developing lung cancer as the general population.
One common misconception about mesothelioma is that it is a cancer of the lung, when it is actually a cancer of the lungs’ mesothelial lining. As a result, pleural mesothelioma is sometimes referred to as mesothelioma lung cancer.
Asbestos exposure can cause both mesothelioma and lung cancer, yet these illnesses occur in different parts of the body. Lung cancer affects the actual lung, while mesothelioma develops in the lung’s covering, known as the pleura.
In most cases of asbestos lung cancer, the cells that line the air passages become cancerous. In mesothelioma, the mesothelial cells that line vital organs become cancerous. Pleural mesothelioma typically spreads along interlobal fissures in the lungs and may invade the subpleural part of the lungs when it metastasizes.
Smoking contributes to a patient’s likelihood of contracting these diseases in different ways as well. While smoking has been shown to increase an asbestos-exposed person’s risk of developing lung cancer, smoking does not increase the risk of mesothelioma. Asbestos-exposed smokers’ lungs may be weakened by cigarette smoke, making them generally more susceptible to lung damage and diseases, but smoking does not increase the risk of mesothelioma.
Although laws have been enacted to restrict the use of asbestos and reduce the incidence of asbestos-related illnesses, patients continue to be diagnosed with mesothelioma and lung cancer because of the diseases’ long latency periods. Many mesothelioma patients do not display symptoms that warrant medical attention until 20 to 50 years after they were exposed to asbestos. Similarly, most lung cancer diagnoses in asbestos workers are made at least 15 years after exposure to asbestos.
For lung cancer and mesothelioma patients, early diagnosis is crucial to improving prognosis. Patients who develop dyspnea, or shortness of breath, and have a significant history of asbestos exposure, should obtain a chest X-ray and pulmonary function tests to increase the chance of early diagnosis.
Tests used in the diagnosis of lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma may include:
Chest X-rays are the most commonly used diagnostic tool for revealing pleural changes that may be indicative of asbestos-related lung and pleural diseases.
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