Asbestos Cancer

If you or a loved one are possibly suffering cancer caused by asbestos exposure, it is important that you arm yourself with the knowledge to ensure proper care. Part of that knowledge is learning about how asbestos causes cancer and what are the different types of asbestos cancers.

What Is Asbestos Cancer?

Asbestos cancer is cancer that develops as a result of asbestos exposure or from asbestos-related complications. Mesothelioma is the type of cancer most often associated with asbestos. However, besides mesothelioma, asbestos can also cause various lung cancers and lung diseases as well. Each type of cancer acts very differently and requires tailored treatments. Knowing specifically which type of asbestos cancer a patient has is critical information for doctors.

How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that forms useful fibers once frequently used in construction and industrial materials. Older building and manufacturing materials, such as insulation, fire retardant, roof shingles, pipes, floor tiles, textured paints, even car brake pads, often contain large amounts of asbestos fibers.

The two main types of asbestos fibers—chrysotile and amphiboles—cause the majority of asbestos-related lung diseases and cancers because they are a size and shape that allows them to plant themselves in lung tissue.

While working with asbestos-laden materials, such as drilling, cutting, tearing out, etc., workers can inadvertently cause asbestos fibers to become airborne. When work stirs up asbestos dust, those in the area not wearing protection inhale the dust. While some fibers may be coughed out or swallowed down in saliva, other fibers can make their way to the lungs and pierce the lung lining and chest wall.

Asbestos Fibers Compromise the Immune System

The size of the asbestos fibers makes the body’s natural defenses against foreign bodies, such as scavenger cells, unsuccessful at breaking them down, so they remain as a constant irritant. The fibers remain in the lung tissue, causing inflammation, which results in the release of harmful substances to the lungs.

Over time, constant inflammation can develop scarring and initiate cancer formation. The scarring can spread from small to large airways and even to the air sacs (alveoli) in the airways. The actual fibers can travel to the tissue lining the lung (pleura) and cause so much scarring that plaque forms.

Studies suggest that exposure to the amphiboles fibers produce higher rates of cancer and are more likely to result in mesothelioma (cancer of the lung lining), while exposure to chrysotile fibers causes only a moderate risk.

While no type or level of exposure to asbestos can be deemed safe, studies suggest that the greater someone’s exposure to asbestos, the higher the risks of developing related cancers and diseases. Also important to note is that the risk of getting lung cancer from asbestos increases significantly in those who smoke.

Types of Asbestos Cancers

As stated above, asbestos may cause different types of cancer.

These possible cancers include:

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Non-small cell lung cancer accounts for 80-85% of all lung cancers. Asbestos exposure can increase a person’s risk of or even directly cause non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

There are three different types of NSCLC, depending on the type of lung cell the cancer developed from.

  • Adenocarcinoma: This is the most common form of lung cancer and forms in cells during their early stage. While it occurs predominantly in smokers, it is the most common type of lung cancer that develops in non-smokers and in younger individuals. It’s also the slowest-spreading cancer, making it more likely to be discovered early before it has spread. Typically, someone diagnosed with adenocarcinoma has a better prognosis than those diagnosed with another NSCLC.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: Comprising close to 30% of all lung cancer cases, squamous cell carcinoma is usually linked with smoking. Cancer develops in the flat cells (squamous cells) that line the airways inside of the lungs.
  • Large cell carcinoma: Accounting for less than 15% of all lung cancers, large cell carcinoma may develop in any part of the lung. This, combined with its speedy development and ability to spread makes it difficult to treat.

Small Cell Lung Cancer

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) accounts for only 10-15% of all lung cancers. SCLC is strongly linked to smokers and is incredibly rare in non-smokers. It is an aggressive form of cancer that grows rapidly and spreads early. From development to the onset of symptoms could take as little as 90 days or less. If not caught in the early stages, it is incurable.

While SCLC most often occurs in smokers, asbestos exposure still plays a role in increasing a person’s risk of getting SCLC and could be responsible for non-smokers who develop SCLC.


Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the tissue lining either the lung (called the pleural), the heart (the pericardium) or the abdomen (called the peritoneum). Mesothelioma and lung cancer are not the same things. While lung cancers have other risk factors, the only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos.

All types of asbestos can be linked with mesothelioma, though amphibole asbestos demonstrates seems tied to higher risks of it even at lower levels of exposure than chrysotile asbestos fibers. Unfortunately, even minimal exposure to asbestos still seems to be unsafe, as even family members of those who worked with asbestos have been known to develop mesothelioma. However, the risk is greater for those who experienced higher levels of exposure.

Mesothelioma takes even longer to develop than other types of asbestos cancers or diseases. Typically at least 30 years pass between exposure and onset of symptoms and diagnosis. Unfortunately, there is no curing mesothelioma.

Lung Cancer vs Mesothelioma

Though asbestos can lead to both lung cancer and mesothelioma, these two types of cancer, while sharing some similar symptoms, ultimately neither look nor act the same. Their locations, symptoms, prognosis, treatments, and survival rates differ.

Areas of Impact

  • Mesothelioma: Mesothelioma is a cancer that starts in the outer tissue lining the lung, abdominal cavity, or heart. It is not restricted to only the lungs.
  • Lung cancer: Depending on the type of lung cancer, it may start in the mucus-forming cells, the cells in the passages of the airway, or virtually in any part of the lung.

Risk Factors

  • Mesothelioma: The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. However, there are genetic, environmental, and demographic risk factors involved, which can contribute to a person’s likelihood of developing mesothelioma after asbestos exposure.
  • Lung cancer: Lung cancer has multiple risk factors, smoking, and the use of tobacco products being the main one. Asbestos exposure, as well as exposure to secondhand smoke, radon, and uranium, are also risk factors. Someone who smokes and has been exposed dramatically increases their risk of developing lung cancer.

Side by Side Comparison

If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with asbestos-related cancer, understanding their differences, knowing more about the types there are, and getting a general idea of the prognosis can be helpful. The more you know, the better you can manage your care and plan for the future.


Mesothelioma takes the longest to develop, with at least 30 years spanning the time of exposure to time of diagnosis in most cases. As such, the average age of diagnosis is 69.

There are multiple types of mesothelioma, classified based on their location:

  • Pleural Mesothelioma: Located in the lining of the lungs, this is the most common type of mesothelioma, accounting for nearly 80% of all new cases. The prognosis, unfortunately, is not good. Most patients do not survive more than 17-20 months after diagnosis.
  • Peritoneal Mesothelioma: Located in the lining of the abdomen, this form is less common. It tends to spread quickly to other abdominal organs. Prognosis has improved with a new treatment, HIPEC (hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy).
  • Pericardial Mesothelioma: Located in the lining of the heart cavity, this form is rare. It accounts for fewer than 1% of all mesothelioma cases. This form progresses rapidly and is usually not detectable until a fatal incident and an autopsy is performed.

Mesothelioma is further classified by the type of cancer cell. In most instances, it is the type of cell, not the location, that determines the severity and prognosis of the mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma cell types include:

  • Epithelioid Mesothelioma: This is the most common of the mesothelioma cells, accounting for approximately 50-60% of all cases. Epithelioid cancer cells are adenocarcinomas, a malignancy typically found in lung cancers. This type of mesothelioma has the best prognosis of the three and is most receptive to treatment.
  • Sarcomatoid Mesothelioma: This type accounts for not quite 10% of all cases. Sarcomatoid is the hardest to treat and offers the worst prognosis.
  • Biphasic Mesothelioma: This type occurs when there is a mix of both epithelioid and sarcomatoid cells present. It occurs in approximately 30% of all cases. The prognosis depends on which cell type is dominant, but in general, the chances are better than sarcomatoid but worse than epithelioid.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer caused by asbestos does not, on average, take as long to develop after the point of exposure. Usually, at least 15 years pass between exposure to diagnosis.

As with mesothelioma, there are multiple types:

  • Non-small cell lung cancer: By far the most common form of lung cancer, accounting for over 80% of all cases. There are three types, based on the kind of cell it originates in:
  • Adenocarcinoma: The most common form and most treatable.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: Accounts for 30% of all lung cancer. Cancer develops in the flat cells (squamous cells) that line the airways inside of the lungs. Almost always linked with smoking.
  • Large cell carcinoma: Accounts for less than 15% of all lung cancers and may develop anywhere in the lung. It develops and spreads quickly and is difficult to treat.
  • Small cell lung cancer: A rare form, accounting for only a little over 10% of lung cancers, it is very aggressive and incurable if not caught early. Almost always associated with smoking.

Seeking a Specialist

While they have their differences, asbestos cancers can share many of the same early symptoms and can be very difficult to diagnose accurately. To ensure your best care, learn as much as you can about the differences and similarities between lung cancer and mesothelioma, and be sure to discuss them with your doctor. If you feel your doctor has not taken the necessary steps to properly diagnose either cancer, you need to seek out a second opinion.

Even if your doctor is taking all the proper steps, it is wise to pursue the opinion of a mesothelioma specialist to ensure an accurate diagnosis, as treatment and prognosis will vary drastically.

For more information on working with a mesothelioma specialist, contact our Patient Advocates today.

Mesothelioma Support Team

Mesothelioma Hope was founded by a team of advocates to educate people about this aggressive form of cancer. Mesothelioma affects thousands of people each year. We help give hope to those impacted by mesothelioma.

View 8 References
  1. National Cancer Institute, “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk?” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 1, 2018.
  2. eMedicine Health, “Small-Cell Lung Cancer” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 1, 2018.
  3. American Cancer Society, “Asbestos and Cancer Risk?” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 1, 2018.
  4. American Cancer Society, “Survival Statistics for Mesothelioma?” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 1, 2018.
  5. American Cancer Society, “What is Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer?” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 1, 2018.
  6. American Cancer Society, “Small Cell Lung Cancer Risk Factors” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 1, 2018.
  7. American Cancer Society, “What Causes Small Cell Lung Cancer” Retrieved from: Accessed on February 1, 2018.
  8., “Asbestos Related Disorders.” Retrieved from: Accessed on Febrary 2, 2018

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