While on the surface, many people confuse mesothelioma with lung cancer due to the similarities in symptoms, latency periods, and the fact that both cancers can be caused by asbestos, there are several important differences.
Asbestos-related lung cancer develops when asbestos fibers lodge in the lung tissue. Mesothelioma is not considered a lung cancer, even though it is caused when those same fibers lodge in the pleura, the tissue lining the lungs.
Lung cancer, also known as bronchogenic carcinoma, can also be caused by smoking and environmental pollution, but the National Cancer Institute confirmed that asbestos can also be a primary cause of the disease.
Most people are diagnosed with either small cell lung cancer or non-small cell lung cancer. Non-small cell cancer is diagnosed in the majority of cases and includes large-cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma. Small cell cancer is more aggressive though less common, accounting for only 20% of lung cancer cases. It’s also more difficult to treat.
Symptoms and Detection
The symptoms of asbestos-related lung cancer – like mesothelioma – can take many years to surface, often 15 to 35 years or more. Smoking, a known co-carcinogen, can aggravate the effects of asbestos and speed up this latency period.
When they do surface, however, the symptoms of asbestos-related lung cancer can include the following:
- Shortness of breath
- Chronic or persistent cough that may worsen over time
- Difficulty swallowing
- Coughing up blood
- Loss of appetite or weight loss
- Chest pain
- Fatigue or anemia
- Swelling in the face or neck
Mesothelioma sufferers quite often experience many of these symptoms as well – especially shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, coughing, weight loss, and fatigue – so many asbestos exposure victims wrongfully believe that they have lung cancer during the initial stages.
Scans, biopsies, lung function tests, and chest x-rays can make a definitive diagnosis of whether a patient has lung cancer or mesothelioma. For this reason, it’s important for any patient who has previously been exposed to asbestos, whether occupationally or otherwise, to let his or her doctor know immediately. Patients should also provide their doctor with a clear medical and work history.
A lung biopsy will be able to detect microscopic asbestos fibers in the lung tissue. This is the most reliable way to determine if an individual has been exposed to asbestos. A bronchoscopy is less invasive and it can also detect fibers in material that has been rinsed from the lungs.
Similar to mesothelioma and many other forms of cancer, asbestos-related lung cancer can be treated using surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, photodynamic therapy, targeted drug therapy, and other methods like clinical trials for new drugs.
As with mesothelioma, surgery is typically not an option for lung cancer patients unless it is caught in the very early stages. Chemotherapy is often recommended for both types of cancer. Chemotherapy can kill cancer cells (as well as some healthy ones in the process), and it can shrink tumors in the lungs. In addition, a doctor might also suggest radiation for each of these diseases, typically in combination with chemo.
Patients may also consider taking advantage of ongoing clinical trials of new cancer treatment drugs if recommended by their doctor. Additionally, photodynamic therapy uses special light sensitizing drugs and lasers to kill cancer cells, but it is typically only used in combination with other treatments, and only during a time when the cancer hasn’t spread beyond the lungs.
During the time of diagnosis and treatment, those who smoke should attempt to kick the habit. Anyone who has been or may have been exposed to asbestos in their lifetime should not smoke. Studies have suggested that exposed workers who smoke can reduce their risk of developing lung cancer by quitting.
Outlook and Survival
As with all asbestos-related diseases, the outcomes for victims of lung cancer can vary. Unfortunately, there is no treatment that can reverse the effects of asbestos exposure on the lungs. Early treatment, however, can prevent or delay possible complications. It can also significantly improve survival rates and give asbestos victims more time.
Survival rates also depend on the amount of exposure the victim has incurred, the type of cancer that they’ve developed, and when the disease was discovered. Six percent of those diagnosed with the aggressive small cell lung cancer live five years or longer. This type of cancer is quick to spread throughout the body and tougher to treat. For those with non-small cell lung cancer, that rate of those who survive five years or longer increases to 17 percent.
The detrimental effects of asbestos were known early on in the 20th century, however, it was widely used in many occupations and industries through the 1970s. Ships and shipyards, the automotive industry, power plants, construction sites, mines, textile factories, and many other places that utilized asbestos for its fireproofing and insulating properties have repeatedly put workers at high risk for exposure. Those who were exposed – particularly in an occupational setting, but even those who were exposed as family members or neighbors of asbestos industries – are all at risk for developing asbestos-related diseases.
For those coping with an asbestos-related lung cancer diagnosis, legal help is available. To learn about your options and routes for pursuing compensation, discuss your options with a professional and experienced attorney. If you’ve been exposed to asbestos in the past and you’ve now been diagnosed with lung cancer, you may have the right to pursue compensation from the responsible parties.