What is lung cancer?

Lung cancer develops when lung tissue cells become abnormal and grow out of control. Over time they form a clump known as a tumour.

Whilst asbestos exposure can induce lung cancer, the diagnosis of lung cancer because of asbestos is relatively rare, occurring in approximately 4% of lung cancer diagnosis. This is mainly because treating clinicians rarely need to look for additional causes particularly when the patient has been a smoker.

Smoking does not prevent a diagnosis of lung cancer due to asbestos exposure. In fact someone who is a smoker and has been exposed to asbestos is at a greatly increased risk of suffering from lung cancer, compared to someone who has only smoked.

Symptoms of asbestos related lung cancer

Common symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • A persistent or changing cough
  • Breathlessness – occurring when a tumour is large or blocks off an airway. This can also be caused if there is pleural effusion
  • Blood in the sputum
  • Pain – this usually occurs if the tumour reaches the edge of the lung or touches up against the ribs
  • Wheezing from one side of the chest
  • Weight loss

However, if the cancer has spread then symptoms may not be related to the lungs and can be liver jaundice, bone pain, skin lumps or brain damage.


How does asbestos cause lung cancer?

When asbestos fibres are inhaled they can become trapped in the lungs. As they build up overtime due to increased exposure to asbestos, they can scar and damage the lungs, which can trigger the development of lung cancer.

It is the level of exposure to asbestos that has the greatest bearing on whether or not it will progress and cause an asbestos related disease like lung cancer.


Prognosis of asbestos related lung cancer

The prognosis of asbestos related lung cancer is very similar to the prognosis given for lung cancers not related to exposure to asbestos. Often a patient can survive for between 16-18 months depending on the stage of the cancer, whether it has metastasised, the size of the tumour and the age and lifestyle of the patient.


Treatments for asbestos related lung cancer

Treatment for lung cancer is similar to that of other cancers and depends greatly on the age and condition of the person suffering from the disease.

This will vary from definitive treatments to eradicate or reduce the tumours, or alternatively, if the cancer is at an advanced stage then palliative treatment may be the only option.

  • Surgery – this includes the removal of part or all of the found tumours and to control the pleural fluid.
  • Chemotherapy – used to shrink the tumours or to relieve the pain.
  • Radiotherapy – used to kill the cancerous cells and shrink the tumours. This can also be used as a way to relieve the pain.