Smoking and asbestos exposure are the two leading causes of lung cancer. It is estimated that more than 2000 people die every year in Great Britain because of lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Most of the victims are individuals who have, or work in industries that use asbestos. Because their work may involve working with asbestos, builders, electricians, plumbers, plasterers and insulation mechanics are just some of those who could be at high risk for suffering from lung cancer.
Where The Asbestos Danger Lurks
The association between asbestos and lung cancer was discovered in the early eighties and prohibition laws for certain types of asbestos were first introduced in the UK in the mid-1980s. In 1999, another law was introduced that prohibited the import and use of all types of asbestos.
The big question then is, why is lung cancer still being caused by asbestos when the material has been banned in most countries around the world?
The fact is, while the further use of asbestos may be prohibited, asbestos is still present in many buildings constructed before 2000 and any maintenance, refurbishing or repair work could mean releasing asbestos dust into the air.
This risk increases several times if there is any breaking, cutting or drilling involved as any of these actions can generate large amounts of asbestos particles and dust, which can be inhaled. Considering the large number of buildings that fall into this asbestos-containing category, you can well see the danger.
Although the dangers of asbestos exposure have been well documented and publicised, many people are still unaware of the risks involved. Education plays a key role in reducing the risk of asbestos related lung cancer.
Symptoms of Lung Cancer
There are a few symptoms that could alert you to the first signs of lung cancer.
Typical symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, difficulty in breathing or a cough with a hoarse throat. Coughing could bring up phlegm with traces of blood and there could be a bit of chest pain.
There could also be signs of anaemia, which could lead to weight loss. The sore throat makes swallowing difficult, exacerbating the weight loss.
As the condition progresses, all of the symptoms get more exaggerated – you start to feel extremely fatigued even after the slightest activity and you lose weight even faster.
How Lung Cancer Is Diagnosed
The first step will be a physical examination where the doctor will ask you about your symptoms, lifestyle, medical history and whether you’ve had any exposure to asbestos.
You may then be asked to get some X-rays and CT scans done in order to make an accurate diagnosis and determine the extent of the damage if any. You may be asked to do an MRI too depending on what shows up on the X-rays.
This is usually followed up by lung function tests which could determine to what capacity your lungs are performing.
Depending on the outcome of these tests, your doctor could ask you to get a biopsy done which could tell you whether there are asbestos fibres present or not.
There are different methods that are used to remove fluids or cells from the lungs to confirm the diagnosis of asbestos-exposure lung cancer.
- Bronchoscopy: A bronchoscope, which is a thin tube with a light, is inserted into the mouth or the nose and sent down through to the lungs. This allows the doctor to get a detailed view of the lungs and the air passages. A cell sample can also be obtained using this tool.
- Thoraccentesis: In this procedure, a thin long needle is inserted into the lungs and lung fluid is drawn out for a sample.
- Thorascopy: This procedure involves making very small cuts in the chest in between two ribs. A lighted thorascope is pushed in through the cuts to the lungs in order to take a closer look at the damage to the lungs and to remove cell and fluid samples.
- Fine Needle Aspiration: In this procedure a fine needle is inserted into the lungs, guided by a CT scan to remove fluid or tissue samples.
Once these tests are done and the results come in, the doctor will have a fairly clear idea of how far the disease has progressed and what steps should be taken to halt the progression of the disease.
At this stage, the doctor will classify the disease from Stage 1 to 4.
The 1st and 2nd stages are usually localised while the 3rd stage, though localised, will mean the cancer has spread through the lungs and has affected the lymph nodes.
Stage 4 means the cancer has spread through the body, possibly to the liver, glands, bones and the brain.
The Treatment for Lung Cancer
The first thing the doctor will advise you to do is to make some lifestyle changes and the first item on the list will be to give up smoking if you are a smoker. The combination of exposure to asbestos dust and smoking can be lethal.
The doctor could recommend surgery, chemotherapy or radiation, depending on the extent of the damage. Surgery is prescribed only as a last resort and will not be recommended if the patient is old or weak.
The number of radiation and chemotherapy sessions will depend on how far the condition has progressed. There are a number of targeted drugs available now and these go straight to the affected area, with much less loss of hair and nausea.
How To Prevent Asbestos-Exposure Lung Cancer
If there is the slightest doubt that you could be exposed to asbestos, you are within your rights to refuse to work as asbestos exposure is very dangerous. This is especially so when repairing or breaking old pipes, fixing old boilers or removing old boards.
If you are working with asbestos, you need to be specially trained in the various safety aspects involved when working with this material. More importantly, you should only agree to work if you are provided proper protective gear, including a certified mask.
All asbestos dust that is generated should also be cleaned up using special equipment and stored away in special bags and exposed of legally so it does not put anyone else at risk.