Asbestos Lung Cancer
Lung cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in the UK with 80% of cases caused by smoking. Other risk factors include passive smoking, poor diet, family history of lung cancer and exposure to harmful chemicals including microscopic asbestos fibres which are inhaled into the respiratory system and become lodged in the lungs.
The overall scale of asbestos-related lung cancer deaths each year can only be estimated which researchers believe represents a similar level to that of mesothelioma related deaths, which in 2016 was in excess of 2,500 deaths. Lung cancer is caused by the development of abnormal cells leading to the formation of tumours which attack healthy lung tissue and spread throughout the body through the blood and lymphatic system and account for over 46,000 new cases being reported each year. The cancer can be found in the lungs, the windpipe (trachea) or within the main airway (bronchus).
Malignant mesothelioma is an asbestos-related cancer which mainly affects the lining of the lungs, [pleural mesothelioma] and in less instances it can be found within the abdomen [peritoneal mesothelioma], within the heart [pericardial mesothelioma] and least common in the testicles [testicular mesothelioma]. In almost all instances people who develop mesothelioma have been exposed to asbestos fibres. Whilst presently considered to be an incurable condition those who develop mesothelioma may be able to take part in clinical trials. Presently there is a trial into a new type of immunotherapy drug known as ‘nivolumab’ which is used in people diagnosed with mesothelioma whose cancer has returned after chemotherapy. Other benign (non-cancerous) asbestos related diseases associated to asbestos fibres include asbestosis, pleural effusion, pleural thickening and pleural plaques.
It is well established that smokers of tobacco who are exposed to asbestos increase the risk of developing lung cancer which is caused by the toxin combinations of tobacco and asbestos. Some studies suggest this risk could be increased by five times in non-smokers and by fifty times in smokers.
Many asbestos-related lung cancer cases go undetected in line with commonly held conceptions that ‘it must have been the smoking which caused the cancer’ when in reality this might not be the case. Non-smokers with heavy exposure to asbestos also run a high risk of lung cancer and it is important you discuss your asbestos exposure with your GP and medical team. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published guidelines to help GP’s identify early signs of lung cancer thereby enabling cancer patients to receive quicker tests and treatment.
The clinical presentation of lung cancer is often found alongside evidence of another asbestos-related disease, asbestosis, which is a lung condition normally associated to heavy or prolonged exposure to asbestos fibres. When found together it usually supports the diagnosis of an asbestos-related lung cancer which would enable a sufferer to seek compensation from a former employer for their work related lung cancer condition. Sometimes other asbestos-related conditions are present including pleural thickening, pleural plaques or pleural effusion but in others no other asbestos condition is found. In these circumstances the need to demonstrate substantial exposure to asbestos is required in order to prove a link between the lung cancer and exposure to asbestos. Whilst there remains some controversy concerning asbestos lung cancer risks, in particular those who have developed asbestosis, opinion appears to be moving in the direction that the risks could be associated to others not necessarily suffering with asbestosis but more in keeping with their actual exposure to asbestos (occupational history) or by measurement of the asbestos content in their lung tissue. Solicitors dealing with potential asbestos-related lung cancer cases are guided in their assessment of a case by referring to The Helsinki Criteria which was formulated by an international panel of experts in 1977 to help doctors determine those respiratory diseases which have been caused by asbestos fibres.
People most at risk of developing asbestos-related lung cancer include those workers who have endured ‘moderate’ levels of asbestos exposure typically 5-10 years and those who have endured ‘heavy exposure’ over a year or more, typically somebody who has worked in the insulation industry, manufacturing of asbestos products or asbestos spraying. Other tradesmen at risk are likely to include, laggers, ship builders, plumbers, heating and ventilation engineers, electricians, carpenters, mechanics, boiler makers, metal workers, roofers and factory workers.
Common symptoms of an asbestos-related lung cancer include shortness of breath, wheezing or stubborn coughs, rapid weight loss, fatigue and loss of appetite, chest, back and shoulder pain, coughing up blood in phlegm and frequent infections such as recurring pneumonia or bronchitis. The slow progression of an asbestos illness like lung cancer can typically develop between 15 years and perhaps 35 years after initial exposure, sometimes longer, and this slow time lag is referred to as the ‘latency period’. If you have been exposed to asbestos fibres in your work and suspect your health has been affected you should consult with your GP and outline your history of asbestos exposure.
During initial consultation with your GP it is likely an examination of your lungs and heart will be made using a stethoscope which enables your GP to identify abnormal sounds and other potential problems which might include blocked or narrowed airways, lung disease and other respiratory disorders. The results of an examination can help to determine what, if any further investigations might be required.
Lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure is diagnosed and treated in the same manner as lung cancer caused by smoking and diagnosis usually follows a chest x-ray which provides images of the lung and whilst unable to detect asbestos fibres it can show asbestos-related diseases such as pleural plaques, pleural thickening, asbestosis and pleural effusions (fluid build-up around the heart and lungs) which could be a sign of a more serious disease such as mesothelioma. In lung cancer cases a chest x-ray will show masses or abnormal levels of fluid and a CT scan is often used to confirm a diagnosis and provide more detailed images. CT scans are helpful in identifying early stage asbestosis which an x-ray is unlikely to detect. If a CT scan detects early stage cancer it is likely a PET-CT scan will be arranged to identify precisely where the cancer is and help in the diagnosis and treatment of your condition. A PET-CT scan will help to confirm if the cancer has spread and depending upon where the cancer is active a sample of lung tissue will normally be obtained to enable biopsy. Microscopic examination will confirm what stage your cancer is, what forms of treatment are available and most importantly if it’s possible to cure the cancer.
Cancer staging is a method of describing the size of a cancer and how much it has grown which is important to your medical team and will enable them to determine the most appropriate treatment. A cancer which has not spread and is confined to one area might require a local treatment, surgery or radiotherapy whilst more extensive treatment might be required in instances where the cancer has spread.
Treatment for lung cancer is provided by a team of specialist who in deciding the most appropriate treatment will consider the type of cancer, it’s size and position, how advanced it is and your overall level of health. Treatment options will involve chemotherapy or radiotherapy and in some instances a combination of the two. Surgery might also be a possibility where one or more parts of a lung can be removed or indeed an entire lung in those instances where the cancer has spread into the middle of the lung. Confirmation of your fitness is normally required before surgery and is likely to involve an electrocardiogram (ECG) and spirometry (lung function test).
Compensation for asbestos-related lung cancer is obtained from those former employers who negligently allowed you to be exposed to harmful asbestos fibres. In addition to compensation victims of asbestos-related lung cancer are eligible to claim Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB) if their condition arose as a result of their work.
Anyone diagnosed or affected by an asbestos-related disease which might include, pleural plaques,
pleural thickening, pleural effusion, asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma are invited to contact
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