What is asbestos-related lung cancer?

Lung cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the UK. It is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells, which do not develop into healthy lung tissue, and divide rapidly to form tumours.

Smoking is the most common cause of lung cancer but there are other recognised causes, such as exposure to asbestos dust and fibres. Lung cancer is more common in older people and is rarely found in people under 40-years-old.

How does asbestos cause lung cancer?

Inhaled asbestos fibres become trapped in the lungs. Over long periods of time, the fibres accumulate and cause inflammation and damage to the lungs. After many years, often decades, the asbestos fibres cause enough irritation and cellular damage to generate tumours.

Research has found a clear association between high levels of asbestos dust exposure and the risk of lung cancer. The exposure has to be regular and over a long period of time. It can be difficult to attribute lung cancer to asbestos exposure. If the sufferer is a smoker it is assumed that smoking is the cause and the person’s asbestos exposure is missed.

Smokers who have been exposed to high amounts of asbestos dust over a significant amount of time have a much greater risk of developing lung cancer. The two toxins (tobacco and asbestos) have a multiplicative effect on the risk, and the higher the concentration of asbestos fibres, the higher the risk of lung cancer.

What are the symptoms?

In most cases lung cancer is discovered incidentally through an abnormal X-ray. A person may have sought medical help for an unrelated ailment or has been unable to recover from a chest infection or cough.

Following diagnosis the patient may not show any significant symptoms, even if the lung cancer is at an advanced stage.

Common symptoms that a patient may develop include:

  • Persistent coughing
  • Feeling breathless
  • Chest pain
  • Weight loss
  • Tiredness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Night sweats
  • Coughing up blood

What are the treatments?

In the past decade there have been significant advances in lung cancer treatment. No matter what stage the lung cancer has reached, a specialist consultant will be keen to discuss the patient’s options and to put together a treatment plan. Clinical trials Lung cancer is one of the most difficult cancers to treat but survival rates are constantly improving.

Cancer research is advancing quickly and when a patient begins to discuss treatment it is recommend that they ask about current clinical trials. Each person and every cancer is different, a specialist will put a patient forward for a clinical trial only when medically appropriate.

Treatment approach will depend on a detailed assessment of the patient’s fitness and the cancer, treatment can take the form of ‘radical intent’ or ‘palliative intent’.

Radical intent aims to cure the lung cancer or prolong survival, with minimal undesirable long-term consequences for a patient.

Palliative intent aims to control the cancer, reduce symptoms, and improve the patient’s quality of life. It is important to remember that a treatment plan based on palliative intent can still significantly prolong survival. Both these approaches will combine a number of different treatments.

The main treatments

Surgery: can vary from keyhole procedures, to removing part of the lung containing the tumour, which is known as a lobectomy. Whilst surgery remains the best chance for a cure, other treatment options are becoming nearly as effective in treating lung cancer.

Radiotherapy: cancer cells are destroyed using high-energy X-rays. This helps with symptoms and supports other treatments to stop potential spreading.

Chemotherapy: a course of drugs is used to kill cancer cells and slow their growth. In the past this treatment was associated with severe side effects, but modern treatments combine effectiveness with minimal side effects, which are controlled with medication.

Pain control: has also advanced considerably over the past decade and modern treatments can very effectively control pain and discomfort.