Asbestos Cancer

Asbestos is the name for a group of several different highly carcinogenic (cancer-causing) minerals that used to be used as common construction materials. While the most commonly known form of cancer related to asbestos exposure is mesothelioma, asbestos can also cause other types of cancer. One of the most prevalent alternative forms of cancer that asbestos can cause is lung cancer, especially in people with a history of smoking. There is also some evidence that asbestos exposure contributes to other types of cancer including laryngeal and ovarian cancer.


Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that affects a person’s mesothelial tissue. Mesothelial tissue lines and protects a person’s internal organs. The most common form of mesothelioma is pleural mesothelioma, which affects a person’s lungs and accounts for around 75 percent of all cases of mesothelioma. Mesothelioma can also occur in a person’s abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma) or in the lining around their heart (pericardial mesothelioma), but these forms of the disease are rarer.

Mesothelioma can be difficult to diagnose for two reasons. First, many mesothelioma symptoms mimic those of less serious diseases, which make people less likely to seek medical treatment. Second, mesothelioma has a long latency period, meaning that it can take from 20 to 50 years after a person’s exposure to asbestos before symptoms develop. Consequently, people at risk for asbestos exposure should alert their doctor, so that the doctor can properly monitor their condition.

Lung Cancer

While mesothelioma is probably the cancer most commonly associated with asbestos exposure, lung cancer is actually the most frequently diagnosed asbestos-related disease. This type of cancer involves tumors on the actual tissue of the lung, rather than its mesothelial lining. Lung cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the United States, and also one the deadliest. One of the major reasons for this is the lack of early stage symptoms. People who suffer from lung cancer rarely display symptoms until the tumors grow large enough to restrict their airways or spread to other parts of the body. In these later stages the tumors can cause a variety of respiratory symptoms including chronic cough, hoarseness, chest pain, fatigue, difficulty swallowing, and susceptibility to respiratory infection.

While all people who have been exposed to asbestos are at risk for lung cancer, people who also smoke are particularly vulnerable. Smokers who have been exposed to asbestos are two to four times more likely to develop lung cancer than smokers who were not similarly exposed.

Other Cancers

There is also some evidence that asbestos exposure puts people at a higher risk for other forms of cancer. For instance, a report sponsored by the National Institutes of Health stated that there was sufficient scientific evidence available to declare a link between asbestos exposure and cancer of the larynx (voice box). This report reviewed over 50 scientific studies, and found that asbestos exposure, especially combined with smoking or heavy alcohol consumption, increased a person’s risk for laryngeal cancer. Other studies have linked asbestos exposure to a variety of other cancers including ovarian cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, and renal cancer, but research is ongoing to confirm those links.


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