They say hindsight is 20/20. That's likely the case for asbestos. If, 50 years ago, we knew about the dangers of asbestos, fewer people today would be at risk for asbestos cancer. Unfortunately, it took modern researchers decades to find a link between asbestos and the damage it does to the body. Today, 2,000 to 3,000 people a year are diagnosed with an asbestos-related cancer, such as mesothelioma or asbestos-induced lung cancer.
Because of the disease's long latency period, most patients develop asbestos cancer between 20 and 50 years after the initial exposure to asbestos. Many who are diagnosed with asbestos cancer are age 50 or older and have had the disease for years without knowing. Asbestos cancer is difficult to diagnose, and once it starts, it can spread quickly.
While it is not yet fully understood how asbestos fibers lead to cancer, researchers are working to find the answer. Top researchers have some theories, though. Some believe that asbestos fibers cause irritation and inflammation of mesothelial cells, resulting in severe tissue scarring, cellular damage and cancer. Others believe that the fibers can enter the cells and disrupt the structure and communications, leading to the abnormal cell division that causes cancer. Still others believe that asbestos causes cells to produce a protein that causes cells to malfunction and ignore their normal processes.
Regardless of how asbestos reacts with cells, the cancer it causes attacks the lining of the lungs, known as the mesothelium. This causes the pleural cavity to fill with fluid and impair breathing. In more advanced stages, asbestos cancer can spread to other parts of the body, such as the tissues, organs and lining of the abdominal cavity and the heart. The cells may also be introduced to the bloodstream, where they spread to the lymph nodes, letting the cancer spread even faster.
As a result, people afflicted with asbestos cancer may experience shortness of breath, chest pains, nausea, trouble breathing, a persistent chest cough and other symptoms. Because these symptoms are common to many other illnesses, doctors may not suspect asbestos cancer right away. Further testing can reveal whether asbestos cancer is the cause of these symptoms.
Mesothelioma is the most common asbestos cancer, but asbestos-induced lung cancer may be a result of exposure as well. The risks for developing either type of cancer increase dramatically in smokers and those who don't use safe guards to protect against continued exposure to asbestos.
Unfortunately, the life expectancy for both asbestos cancers is short, so immediate treatment is necessary to fight the cancer and improve the patient's quality of life. Treatments usually include chemotherapy and radiation, and when caught early enough, surgery may be an option.
If you or a loved one have been exposed to asbestos, it is important to have routine visits with your doctor. The earlier cancer is detected, the better the prognosis and life expectancy and the faster you can get started on treatment.