The treatment of asbestos-related lung cancer depends in large part on the progression of the disease prior to diagnosis. Cancers that are detected in the earliest stages are much less difficult to treat than those which have ravaged the body for some time. Many cancers metastasize – that is, they spread through the body from the original point of the cancer’s origin. When a cancer has metastasized, it becomes much more difficult to treat and many treatments (such as surgery) that are very effective for small cancers become impractical or impossible.

The diagnosis of lung cancer generally begins with a chest examination, with the doctor listening to the lungs with a stethoscope and trying to detect unusual breathing sounds. Anomalies are confirmed with a chest X-ray, giving them a general picture of the lungs that will show spots where cancer is present. In recent years, developments such as CT, PET, and MRI scans have given physicians much more powerful diagnostic instruments; these high-tech scans allow the doctor to see the lungs in three dimensions and to gather much more information. Some cancers are diagnosed through an analysis of sputum to determine if the patient is actually coughing up cancer cells. The most reliable diagnostic tool remains a biopsy – opening the patient surgically, taking a sample of the suspected tumor, and examining it microscopically to see if it is a malignant cancer.

If a lung cancer is in the early stages, surgeons may be able to remove the tumor or tumors completely, leaving the remaining tissue free of cancer. Cancer patients who are treated at this stage have a very good prognosis. Somewhat more developed cancers are also removed surgically, and then the patient is given chemotherapy or radiation therapy in the hopes of killing any remaining cancer cells or tumors which were too small for the surgeon to see or remove. When cancer has spread through a portion of a lung, that lobe of the lung (or even the entire lung) may be surgically removed, and the surgery is again followed by intensive chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

When the cancer has metastasized beyond the lung, physicians generally focus more on palliative care – treatment to deal with the symptoms rather than attempting to cure the disease, which has progressed beyond the point where current medical science can cure it. Some patients at this stage of the disease opt for aggressive experimental therapies, hoping either for a miraculous cure or at least to contribute to the state of medical knowledge for the benefit of future patients.

Research on therapies for lung cancer is ongoing. The federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year funding research projects, as do private research organizations. Every year there are hundreds of clinical trials of new medications or therapeutic techniques, and all of this research has improved the prognosis of asbestos cancer patients tremendously over the last century. Lung cancer can be cured, and while nobody will ever be grateful to have lung cancer, it is not the worst disease that asbestos exposure can lead to.