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Lung Cancer from Asbestos

Asbestos lung cancer refers to lung carcinomas where exposure to asbestos is a major cause of the disease. People with a history of asbestos exposure are several times more likely to develop lung cancer. Smoking significantly increases this risk.

Lung cancer is the second-most-common type of cancer in men and women and the leading cause of cancer death in the nation.

More than 234,000 cases of lung cancer were diagnosed in 2018, according to the American Cancer Society. About 154,000 Americans died from lung cancer.

About 80 percent of lung cancer deaths are attributed to smoking. Exposure to asbestos only accounts for roughly 4 percent of all lung cancer cases.

However, asbestos-related lung cancer is much more common than pleural mesothelioma, a rare cancer that forms on the thin lining surrounding the lungs.

Data from the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program estimates 6,000 Americans die of asbestos-related lung cancer each year. All forms of malignant mesothelioma kill roughly 2,500 Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The National Cancer Institute confirmed asbestos exposure as a cause of lung cancer in 1942.

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How Does Asbestos Cause Lung Cancer?

When microscopic asbestos fibers are inhaled, they can become stuck in the lung tissue. Over time — typically 15 to 35 years — these fibers cause genetic and cellular damage that can lead to cancer.

Several factors affect whether a person will develop asbestos-related lung cancer, including:

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Symptoms of Asbestos Lung Cancer

The symptoms of asbestos-related lung cancer are the same as in lung cancer cases caused by smoking.

Common symptoms include:

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Treatment Options

Treatment options for asbestos-related lung cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and emerging treatments such as immunotherapy.

Patients diagnosed in the earlier stages typically have more treatment options available and respond better to treatment.

Unlike pleural mesothelioma, there are several immunotherapy drugs approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to treat non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) — which represents about 85 percent of all lung cancer cases.

Immunotherapy Drugs Approved for NSCLC

Many asbestos-related lung cancer patients can access these immunotherapies and other treatments through clinical trials and compassionate-use programs.

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Who Is Most at Risk for Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer?

People who have a past history of occupational asbestos exposure are more at risk of developing asbestos-related lung cancer. This risk is much greater if the person has a heavy smoking history.

A 2017 study published in Molecular and Clinical Oncology analyzed 147 male patients with asbestos-related lung cancer.

The most common work histories among patients in the study included:

The most common types of jobs were:

Ex-smokers represented 79.5 percent of patients of the cohort, followed by smokers (10.3 percent) and nonsmokers (5.5 percent).

All patients in the study had a median duration of asbestos exposure of 28.3 years and a mean latency period of 10.5 years.

Former workers of these occupations are also at risk for other asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and pleural scarring.


Dr. Snehal Smart

Snehal Smart

Snehal Smart is the Pleural Mesothelioma Center’s in-house medical doctor, serving as both an experienced Patient Advocate and an expert medical writer for the website. When she is not providing one-on-one assistance to patients, Dr. Snehal stays current on the latest medical research, reading peer-reviewed studies and interviewing oncologists to learn about advancements in diagnostic tools and cancer treatments.

Medically Reviewed By Dr. Joanne Getsy
Last Modified December 20, 2018

6 Cited Article Sources

  1. American Cancer Society. (2018, January 4). Key Statistics for Lung Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/non-small-cell-lung-cancer/about/key-statistics.html
  2. American Cancer Society. (2016, May 16). Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Risk Factors. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/non-small-cell-lung-cancer/causes-risks-prevention/risk-factors.html
  3. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2017, October 27). Lung Cancer. Retrieved from: https://medlineplus.gov/lungcancer.html
  4. Uguen, M. et al. (2017, July). Asbestos-related lung cancers: A retrospective clinical and pathological study. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5492728/
  5. Mazurek, J. et al. (2017, March 3). Malignant Mesothelioma Mortality – United States, 1999-2015. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6608a3.htm
  6. Wolff, H. et al. (2015, January). Asbestos, asbestosis, and cancer, the Helsinki criteria for diagnosis and attribution 2014: Recommendations. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25299403

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