Asbestos Cancer

Researchers have linked asbestos to deadly types of cancer despite its former status as a “miracle mineral.” The aggressive and fatal cancer mesothelioma may develop if asbestos fibers get lodged in the linings of the lungs, abdomen, heart, or testes. Other asbestos-related cancers may form in the lungs, ovaries, larynx (voice box), and more.

Written and Fact-Checked by: Mesothelioma Hope Team

Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk

Asbestos has been shown to increase the risk of some cancers, including mesothelioma, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

“Approximately half of the deaths from occupational cancer are estimated to be caused by asbestos.”

– World Health Organization (WHO)

Asbestos is a general term for a group of silicate minerals made up of long, stringy fibers, and exposure to the carcinogen can cause different cancers depending on where the fibers are lodged in the body.

Inhaling asbestos fibers causes mineral particles to enter the body, and once inside they never leave. Asbestos fibers are so strong that they cannot decompose as organic foreign objects do. Over time, asbestos fibers burrow deeper into healthy tissue, causing the formation of scar tissue and ultimately cancerous tumors.

Unfortunately, asbestos is still not completely banned in the United States and can be found in millions of homes, factories, and mechanical equipment.

Types of Cancer Caused by Asbestos

Asbestos has been linked to various types of cancer, but some are more clearly linked than others. In all cases of asbestos-related cancer, the greater the exposure to asbestos, the greater the individual’s risk of cancer.


Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma, and once asbestos has triggered this cancer, it may take years for symptoms to develop.

Causes of Mesothelioma Video Thumbnail

Registered Nurse Amy Fair discusses how exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma. View Transcript.

Duration: 1 min 06 sec

What are the causes of mesothelioma?

Many times after being diagnosed with mesothelioma your physician may ask you if you have been exposed to asbestos. Asbestos is a causative factor for mesothelioma. Some of the imaging studies may show underlying pleural plaques which are indicated that they have been around asbestos and may show underlying asbestosis.

The risk factors for developing mesothelioma are working around asbestos-related products or being indirectly around those products such as secondhand exposures that are seen with wives that launder their loved ones’ clothes and have asbestos dust on them. So direct asbestos exposure, as well as indirect asbestos exposure, can be causative factors for mesothelioma.

If you have symptoms of mesothelioma or any asbestos-related disease, it’s important that you inform your doctor of your asbestos exposure so that appropriate testing can be done.

Approximately 3,000 people are diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma each year in the United States. Mesothelioma rates are even higher in other nations that don’t have as much awareness about asbestos health hazards.

There are 4 types of mesothelioma:

  1. Pleural Mesothelioma: Pleural refers to the lungs and respiratory system. The lungs are relatively large organs with a significant mesothelium membrane area. They’re also the first stop for asbestos fibers entering the body. Approximately 80% of asbestos cancer cases are pleural mesothelioma.
  2. Peritoneal Mesothelioma: This type of cancer attacks the abdominal area and neighboring organs. The stomach, liver, and spleen are targets for peritoneal mesothelioma. It accounts for roughly 20% of asbestos-caused cancers.
  3. Pericardial Mesothelioma: The heart lining is called the pericardium, and it’s also a mesothelium-type membrane. Often misdiagnosed as another cardiac ailment, pericardial mesothelioma is quite rare, making up about 1% of all cases.
  4. Testicular Mesothelioma: This is a very rare type of mesothelioma that develops in the lining of the testes (tunica vaginalis). There are less than 1,000 confirmed testicular mesothelioma cases recorded in medical literature. Scientists know little about how asbestos fibers reach the testicular lining.

Regardless of type, mesothelioma often has a poor outlook for recovery and life expectancy. However, the companies that exposed millions of Americans to asbestos and caused them to develop this terrible disease were forced to set aside asbestos trust funds to compensate their victims.

Victims of mesothelioma are encouraged to seek asbestos trust fund compensation to hold these companies accountable.

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Lung Cancer

Asbestos-related lung cancer is caused by inhalation or ingestion of the fibrous asbestos particles. Inhalation can occur from asbestos mining, the manufacturing of asbestos-containing products, or disturbing/breaking down asbestos products.

20% of tumors located in the lungs are linked to asbestos exposure.

Asbestos exposure can lead to lung cancer in a two-part process. First, asbestos fibers embed themselves in the soft inner tissues of the lungs. The asbestos fibers then travel over the soft tissue and make their way into the lung lining.

Once these fibers have been inhaled and taken into the lungs, there is no way for them to be forced out, so they start to create small incisions. The body’s natural reaction is to then begin the healing process by trying to cover these small incisions with scar tissue.

This can create small or large build-ups over time (tumors). In some instances, the tumors will become malignant, meaning they have the ability to spread. This process can take anywhere from 20 to 50 years, depending on the individual.

Smoking tobacco products can greatly increase a person’s risk of lung cancer tied to asbestos. Patients who smoke are up to 50 times more likely to contract asbestos-related cancer than non-smokers.

Other Cancers Linked to Asbestos

  • Laryngeal (voice box) cancer
  • Pharyngeal (throat) cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Stomach cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Cancers found in other abdominal organs

Laryngeal cancer is linked to the inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers. Additionally, asbestos fibers may reach the ovaries and cause ovarian cancer by migrating across the diaphragm in the peritoneal cavity.

Non-Cancerous Asbestos Diseases

Non-cancerous (benign) diseases may also result from asbestos exposure. Although they are non-cancerous, benign asbestos diseases are still hazardous to an individual’s health and, in some cases, can lead to and be early signs of cancer.


Asbestosis involves the scarring of the lung tissue due to asbestos fibers. This scarring causes discomfort, pain, and difficulty in breathing.

Similar to other asbestos-related diseases, asbestosis causes the body to try to heal the scars in the lining of the lungs. Though this condition is not fatal, it can lead to more serious health effects such as cardiac or respiratory dysfunction and potentially failure, especially over time.

Pleural Plaques

Pleural plaques are another type of non-cancerous disease associated with exposure to asbestos. These are hardened (calcified) build-ups of collagen, which is a protein naturally produced within the body.

Though not overly deadly on its own, pleural plaques can lead to more aggressive and deadly forms of diseases.

Pleural Effusion

Pleural effusion is another non-cancerous disease caused by asbestos exposure. This disease is a build-up of liquid between layers of lung tissue and the outer layer of the lungs.

Symptoms of these liquid build-ups are difficulty breathing, chest pain, and dry cough, but they can be alleviated by having a doctor drain the effusions from the lungs.

Other Non-Cancerous Asbestos Diseases

  • Atelectasis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Diffuse pleural thickening
  • Pericardial effusion
  • Peritoneal effusion

Symptoms of Asbestos Cancer

Symptoms of asbestos cancer can vary depending on where the tumors first form. Get a breakdown of the symptoms of asbestos cancer below.

Asbestos-Related CancerSymptoms
Pleural MesotheliomaSymptoms are similar to COPD, which causes difficulty breathing and swallowing, shortness of breath, low oxygen level, fatigue, hoarseness, and pain in the chest, shoulders, upper back, and ribs.
Peritoneal MesotheliomaSymptoms include abdominal cramping, blood in feces (stool), sharp lower torso pain, weight loss, fever, nausea, vomiting blood, and bowel irregularities. Some patients may also feel pain in their ribs and upper back.
Pericardial MesotheliomaCancer in the pericardium can cause sudden chest pain, difficulty breathing, dizziness, and dry mouth.
Testicular MesotheliomaWe know little about testicular cancer, and symptoms aren’t well recorded. Pain and testicle malfunction are likely symptoms.
Lung CancerSymptoms may include a new cough that doesn't go away, coughing up blood (even a small amount), shortness of breath, chest pain, hoarseness, excess weight loss, bone pain, and headache.

In particular, symptoms of mesothelioma have a very long latency period — it’s often not until 20-50 years after someone is first exposed that symptoms appear. Usually, by the time symptoms become severe enough to warrant alarm, mesothelioma is well advanced and often too far advanced to control.

How Asbestos Cancer Is Diagnosed

Doctors typically follow a step-by-step process to diagnose asbestos cancers, that goes from non-invasive to invasive procedures.

The diagnostic process for asbestos cancers includes:

  • Imaging Scans: These are usually the first detection step. Non-invasive images look for tell-tale mesothelioma evidence like tumor shadows. X-rays, CT-scans, MRIs and PET scans are common image tests.
  • Blood Tests and Biomarkers: Diagnostic blood tests sometimes accurately isolate cancer cells that are microscopically confirmed by pathologists. More often, blood indicators called biomarkers suggest mesothelioma but warrant further invasive exploration.
  • Biopsies: The only way to diagnose mesothelioma and lung cancer is through a biopsy, a test that takes cell samples from a suspected cancer-infected organ. Biopsies can be conducted using needle insertion or surgery.

Mesothelioma is hard asbestos cancer to detect unless the doctors and medical team are familiar with the disease, its symptoms, and if the patient was exposed to asbestos.

Detection usually happens when a mesothelioma victim is in a later stage and experiencing severe symptoms. However, mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed as other diseases — including other types of cancer.

The team at Mesothelioma Hope is available to help victims connect with mesothelioma doctors who have experience treating this type of cancer.

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Treating Asbestos Cancers

Multiple treatment options exist, depending on the type of asbestos-related disease or cancer an individual has been diagnosed with.

Mesothelioma treatments can vary depending on the area in which the disease is affecting. The goal of these treatments is to soothe the patient’s symptoms and, in some cases, prolong their life.

The most common treatments for mesothelioma include:

Lung cancer patients also have the option of surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. Another treatment option is targeted therapy, which involves taking pills or intravenous medicines that are directed to a specific area to block the growth and spread of the cancerous cells.

Formation of Asbestos Cancer Cells

Asbestos causes cancer in two ways:

  1. Mitosis: Asbestos fibers are thought to penetrate cell walls and damage normal DNA, interrupting the cell division process (mitosis) and causing mutated cells to divide rather than healthy ones.
  2. Mutation: Mesothelial cells react to the asbestos’ presence and release a mutagenic compound that reacts with blood oxygen and nitrogen. This reaction also causes mutated cell production or cancer.

Cancer cells run amuck by multiplying madly and grouping into tumors — masses of cancerous cells.

Cancer and Types of Asbestos

There are two different classes of asbestos, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and all of them can cause cancer.

The serpentine class, which only contains chrysotile asbestos, was most commonly used in manufacturing asbestos-containing materials. Studies have shown that because this type was the most widely used, it accounts for the majority of cases of mesothelioma and asbestos-related cancers.

The other asbestos class is the amphibole fiber group, which contains 5 subclasses:

  1. Crocidolite
  2. Amosite
  3. Tremolite
  4. Actinolite
  5. Anthophyllite

It’s critical for anyone exposed to know that despite there being different health threat levels among types of asbestos, there is no such thing as any safe asbestos exposure.

Next Steps for Asbestos Cancer Victims

Victims of any type of asbestos-related cancer should seek medical treatment from specialists. Asbestos disease specialists will do everything in their power to ensure that the right medical treatment is chosen for you to prolong your survival and improve your quality of life.

Cancer treatments can be expensive, but there are financial options available to you and your loved ones if you qualify. If you have any questions about your options, contact us today.

Mesothelioma Hope was founded by a team of passionate health advocates to educate people about this aggressive form of cancer. Mesothelioma affects thousands of people each year. Our team works tirelessly to give hope to those impacted by mesothelioma. Learn more about operating principles and our Editorial Guidelines.

13 References
  1. American Cancer Society, “Asbestos and Cancer Risk” Accessed on 16 December, 2017

  2. National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Investigating Cancer Risks Related to Asbestos and Other Occupational Carcinogens” Accessed on 16 December, 2017

  3. National Cancer Institute, “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk” Accessed on 16 December, 2017

  4. National Institute of Health, “Early Diagnosis of Lung Cancer and Mesothelioma in Prior Asbestos Workers” Accessed on 16 December, 2017

  5. U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration, “Asbestos Risks” Accessed on 16 December, 2017

  6. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Health Effects from Exposure to Asbestos” Accessed on 16 December, 2017

  7. ATDSR: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “Health Effects of Asbestos” Accessed on April 16, 2020

  8. American Association for Cancer Research, “Does Exposure to Asbestos Cause Ovarian Cancer? A Systematic Literature Review and Meta-analysis” Accessed on April 16, 2020

  9. ATDSR: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry,“Asbestos Toxicity How Should Patients Exposed to Asbestos Be Treated and Managed?” Accessed on April 16, 2020

  10. Mayo Clinic, “Lung Cancer” Accessed on April 16, 2020

  11. Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, “Genetic Damage During Cell Division” Accessed on April 16, 2020

  12. Centers for Disease control and Prevention, “How is Lung Cancer Diagnosed and Treated?” Accessed on April 16, 2020

  13. National Cancer Institute, “Immunotherapy to Treat Cancer” Accessed on April 16, 2020

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