One of the diseases associated with asbestos exposure is lung cancer. Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells in the body. Human cells replicate themselves through our lifespans; we are constantly adding new cells to replace cells which die off due to age, environmental stress, or other reasons. There are chemical mechanisms that tell our cells to stop reproducing when a sufficient quantity of replacements has been created. In cancer, this “stop reproducing” instruction does not function properly, and the cells grow out of control, creating a tumor.
It is thought that 160,000 Americans die each year from cancer of the lungs. Lung cells grow out of control until the tumors they form interfere with the patient’s ability to breathe. There are a number of different types of lung cancer, including epidermoid carcinoma (also known as squamous cell carcinoma), adenocarcinoma, and bronchioalveolar carcinoma. There are differences in the speed with which the different varieties spread, and in their responsiveness to different forms of treatment, but all are potentially deadly. There are no “minor” lung cancers.
Lung cancer is almost always related to smoking tobacco. More than 87% of lung cancer cases are related to tobacco smoking, although there are other ways of getting the disease, including through exposure to asbestos fibers. Tobacco smoking and asbestos exposure combined greatly increase the risk of developing asbestos cancer. Asbestos exposure is the second most frequent cause of lung cancer, after tobacco smoking.
Multiple studies have confirmed that men occupationally exposed to asbestos have an increased risk being diagnosed with asbestos cancer, a risk that was magnified tremendously in the men who also smoked tobacco. Studies have determined that asbestos cancers among those exposed to asbestos are more likely to form in the lower lobes of the lung, where asbestos fibers accumulate more rapidly than in the upper lobes due to the effect of gravity. These studies indicate that asbestos fibers are acting as a direct carcinogen, and that the increased rates of cancer are not due to the scarring of lung tissue that asbestos exposure causes. It is the asbestos itself that contributes to the cancer, not the damage that the fibers do while being encased in the lungs, although there is still debate in the medical community about this issue.
Unlike other asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma, asbestos cancer patients almost always develop symptoms that lead them to seek treatment. Most asbestos cancer sufferers report symptoms such as respiratory distress, an intensified “smoker’s cough”, or pains in the chest, back and shoulder. Other common symptoms and indicators include a change in the color or volume of sputum, wheezing, recurring respiratory ailments like bronchitis, hoarseness, fatigue, aches and pain, loss of appetite, and facial swelling.
Although asbestos cancer is a major disease with a high death rate, it can be treated and there are recoveries. The earlier the cancer is detected, the better the chance for a successful treatment. In addition, diagnosis of asbestos cancer is relatively straightforward, when compared to other ailments like mesothelioma – usually a chest X-ray is enough to give the doctor a very good idea of what is going on, and more modern diagnostic techniques can make this process even faster and more reliable. People who have been exposed to asbestos and who develop the symptoms associated with lung cancer should seek medical attention right away so that therapies can begin to fight the cancer.