According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, lung cancer kills more people than any other type of cancer. In 2006, 196,500 Americans were diagnosed with lung cancer, and 158,600 people died from the disease.1 While many people know that smoking can dramatically increase their odds of getting lung cancer, however, most remain unaware that even a little bit of asbestos exposure can also add to a person’s lung cancer risks.
For decades, shipbuilders, auto mechanics, machinists and many other occupations have inhaled asbestos every day they came to work, not knowing that they were breathing a deadly fiber. Asbestos exposure can lead to several types of lung cancer, including:
Small cell lung cancer
Small cell cancer is by far the more deadly of the two types of traditional lung cancers; however, this disease comprises only about 20 percent of all lung cancer cases. Small cell lung cancer is recognized by its tiny "oat" cells that quickly spread across the lung. Since small cell lung cancer spreads so quickly, the treatment most often used to fight it is chemotherapy.
Small cell lung cancer is most closely associated with smoking. In fact, the disease is rare in those who have never smoked. Because asbestos exposure compounds the effects of smoking, the combination of an asbestos occupation and a cigarette habit is especially deadly.
Non-small cell lung cancer
Non-small cell lung cancer can be further divided into three types: adenocarcinomas cells that are located in the outer area of the lung, squamous cell carcinomas which are usually in the center of the lung by the bronchus and large cell carcinomas, which spread faster than the other two types. If non-small cell cancer is caught before it has spread to the lymph nodes, it can have a very good prognosis.
With fewer than 3,000 new cases diagnosed each year, pleural mesothelioma is far less common than traditional lung cancer. However, this is the disease most closely associated with asbestos since it can only be caused by asbestos exposure. Pleural mesothelioma occurs when microscopic asbestos fibers are inhaled and lodge themselves into the lung’s lining or the "pleura."
Mesothelioma can remain dormant for up to 50 years before the victim starts to experience symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing and pain under the rib cage. By that time, the mesothelioma has usually spread throughout the pleura and started to compress the lung.