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Asbestos cancer: types, risk factors, and treatment options


An overview of the medical risks presented by exposure to asbestos fibers.


Types of asbestos cancer

Two different conditions qualify as forms asbestos cancer. Mesothelioma, a cancer affecting the membrane that lines the lungs or abdominal organs, is most frequently associated with asbestos exposure. However, inhalation of asbestos fibers can also lead to a form of lung caner. Although both diseases can affect the lungs, they are distinct cancers.

Lung cancer classifications

Classifications of lung cancer fall into two categories: small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

Small cell lung cancer is the rarer form of lung cancer, constituting about 20 percent of lung cancer cases. Small cell lung cancer occurs almost exclusively in cigarette smokers and is more aggressive that non-small cell lung cancer. By the time it is diagnosed, it has usually spread to many areas of the body.

Non-small cell lung cancer constitutes about 80 percent of lung cancer cases. Non-small cell lung cancer is more likely to be caused by factors other than smoking, including asbestos exposure.

Types of mesothelioma:

Pleural mesothelioma

The pleura is the lining of the sacs of the chest. A cancer of this lining is known as pleural mesothelioma. Pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of mesothelioma. Some symptoms of pleural mesothelioma are shortness of breath, chest pain and cough.

Peritoneal mesothelioma

The peritoneum is the lining of the abdomen. A cancer of the abdominal lining is known as peritoneal mesothelioma. Peritoneal mesothelioma is less common than pleural mesothelioma. The symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include abdominal swelling, bowel obstruction and nausea.

Pericardial mesothelioma

The pericardium is the mesothelial sac surrounding the heart. Pericardial mesothelioma is a relatively rare compared to the types affecting the lungs or abdominal organs.

How does asbestos cause cancer?

When asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested, they can become trapped in the lungs or gastrointestinal tract. Asbestos fibers can remain in these tissues for a lifetime, eventually causing damage and triggering chemical reactions that can lead to lung cancer or mesothelioma. Asbestos cancers generally have a long latency period. They can develop decades after exposure to asbestos has taken place.

Who is at risk for asbestos cancers such as lung cancer and mesothelioma?

People who work with asbestos-containing products are at the highest risk of developing asbestos cancers such as lung cancer and mesothelioma. Because asbestos was used in all variety of products - from floor tiles to industrial components - workers in hundreds of different industries are at risk of developing asbestos cancers. Some of the more common at-risk professions include:

Shipyard workers
Construction workers  

In addition, the household members of people who work with asbestos products may be at risk of developing asbestos cancer from secondary asbestos exposure. Secondary asbestos exposure occurs when asbestos fibers cling to the clothing of people who work with asbestos products. When these workers come home, their household members can inhale those fibers and develop asbestos cancers decades later.

Asbestos Cancer: Treatment options

Lung cancer treatment

Treatment options for lung cancer depend largely on the type of lung cancer and on the stage of the cancer. Treatment techniques for lung cancer include s
urgeries where the surgeon cuts away the lung cancer tumor. Surgery is effective when the cancer has not spread beyond the lung. Surgical procedures for lung cancer include:  

Thoracotomy - surgery performed through the chest wall

Median sternotomy - involves cutting through the breastbone

Anterior limited thoracotomy - performed on the front area of the chest  

Anterioraxillary thoracotomy - performed on the front part of the chest near the underarm

Posterolateral thoracotomy - performed on the rear of the trunk

In cases where surgery is impossible, alternative procedures may be available. Photodynamic therapy is a treatment involving the use of a specific type of light to kill cancerous cells. To read more about alternative treatments, please feel free to explore more of Weitz & Luxenberg's resources in this section.

Mesothelioma treatment

Treatment techniques for mesothelioma include many of the same techniques as those for lung cancer. Some options include:

Surgery – this procedure usually involves removing part of the lining of the chest or the abdomen. The lining of the chest is removed if the cancer is pleural mesothelioma. The lining of the abdomen is removed if the cancer is peritoneal mesothelioma. In some cases, an entire lung may have to be removed. Also, sometimes the diaphragm (the muscle below the lungs) is removed.

Radiation therapy – involves the use of high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells and reduce tumor size. This treatment technique is only effective for the area of the body that is subjected to radiation. External radiation therapy involves radiation that comes from a machine. Internal radiation therapy involves the insertion of substances that produce radiation through tubes to the area where cancer cells exist.

Chemotherapy – involves the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs for mesothelioma are usually administered by intravenous injection.

Immunotherapy – involves manipulating the immune system so that it attacks cancer cells. Normally, the human immune system does not kill mesothelioma cancer cells because it does not know that the cancer cells are harmful. In a type of immunotherapy known as active immunotherapy, mesothelioma cancer cells are removed and converted into a vaccine. The vaccine is then injected into the patient. The hope is that the patient's immune system will recognize the vaccine as harmful and therefore recognize cancerous mesothelioma cells as harmful as well.


Weitz & Luxenberg  asbestos attorneys are among the leading mesothelioma lawyers in the U.S.The firm has won millions of dollars in asbestos cancer cases for thousands of people. This money has helped many people whose health and financial well-being have been undermined by asbestos cancer. For a free online case review, please complete the form on this page.

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