Asbestos is the term collectively used for a group of naturally occurring minerals in the environment, that are carcinogenic to humans. What makes asbestos exposure all the more dangerous is the fact that its symptoms tend to appear after several decades! This HealthHearty article throws light on the various treatment methods used for asbestos-related diseases, and more.
❝Cigarette smoke and asbestos together significantly increase your chances of getting lung cancer. Therefore, if you have been exposed to asbestos you should stop smoking. This may be the most important action that you can take to improve your health and decrease your risk of cancer.❞
From the late 1800s until late 1900s, asbestos was being used at a great scale in various industries. However, after understanding its fatal effects, its use was prohibited. In 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had imposed a ban on all ‘new uses’ of asbestos. However, the uses developed before 1989, are still allowed. Nonetheless, it was only due to these substantial efforts that the domestic consumption of asbestos was found to be significantly dropped to 2,400 metric tons by 2005, where it amounted to about 803,000 metric tons in 1973.
Millions of people have been exposed to this harmful substance during the past few decades. Those involved in manufacturing asbestos products, shipbuilding trades, construction and demolition, and the like, are affected the most. Interestingly, it was found that those who were a part of the rescue, recovery, and maintenance of the World Trade Center (WTC) post the 9/11 attacks, were exposed to asbestos to a great degree. Because this mineral group was used in the WTC construction, the atmosphere consisted of a heavy amount of asbestos, post the attack. Not only the workers, but also those living near the site were at a great risk. Because the symptoms take several decades―anywhere between 10 to 40 years―there is a possibility that they may not have shown up as yet. However, that does not negate the possibility of being affected.
When a person is constantly subjected to the inhalation of asbestos fibers over long time periods, he or she is likely to develop diseases affecting the lungs. The health hazards due to a chronic exposure include lung cancer, asbestosis, mesothelioma, and certain pleural abnormalities. Certain non-respiratory cancers have also been linked with asbestos exposure, however, there is insufficient evidence to substantiate this speculation. The following sections give you an overview of the different health complications attributed to asbestos, and the treatment measures that are likely to be administered. Note, there is no cure for health problems resulting from asbestos exposure. However, treatment proves to be efficacious in relieving symptoms, preventing further complications, and slowing the progression of the condition.
➦Definition: Asbestosis is a chronic and restrictive lung disease that causes scarring of the lung tissue due to inhalation of asbestos particles over a prolonged period of time. It takes about 15 to 20 years (or more) to show its symptoms, which include, shortness of breath, chest pain, excessive phlegm formation, and dry cough.
➦Treatment: There is currently no total cure for this condition. Treatment of asbestosis begins with ending exposure to all lung irritants. A combination of therapy, follow-up care, medication, and surgery is required to keep the complications at bay.
- Annual administration of flu and pneumococcal vaccinations are a part of the routine care for these patients.
- As this condition causes extreme breathing problems, the use of supplemental oxygen is prescribed.
- Medications may be prescribed to minimize the discomfort arising from certain symptoms such as pain, constipation, cough, etc.
- Surgical measures may be opted in case of an extreme situation, such as the need of a lung transplant.
- The healthcare specialist will ask to completely quit smoking as soon as possible, and also to stay away from any lung irritants that may worsen the condition.
- Regular tests including chest X-rays and lung function tests will have to be done so as to monitor the condition.
➦Definition: The inhaled fibers of asbestos tend to accumulate in the ends of the small airways in the lungs. A prolonged exposure may eventually lead to the formation of cancerous cells in the lungs. The symptoms include cough (with or without blood), wheezing, weight loss, breathing difficulties, and chest pain. Asbestos-related lung cancer usually takes about 15 years to occur after initial exposure.
➦Treatment: The treatment of lung cancer will depend upon how much the cancer has spread. In most cases, the cancer has already passed the initial stage when detected. The treatment options would most likely include medications, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy. Surgical treatment may also be included to remove cancerous tissues and tumor from the lungs.
- Chemotherapy makes use of one or more anti-cancer medication, and a variety of drugs and chemicals that are meant to kill cancer cells.
- Radiation therapy involves using a localized high-dose of radiation on malignant tumors, thereby destroying the cancer cells in the targeted area.
- Targeted therapy involves drugs or other substances to block the growing and spreading tendencies of cancerous cells by targeting the specific molecules responsible for the progression of this disease.
- The surgical procedures would vary depending upon the stage of the cancer, and its histological type, i.e, whether it is small cell or non-small cell lung cancer. Depending upon these factors, surgical treatment may include: Resection (removal of the cancerous tumor along with a portion of the surrounding tissue), Lobectomy (removal of an entire cancerous section of the lung), or Pneumonectomy (removal of the entire lung).
➦Definition: Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer that affects the pleura (lining of the chest cavity, outside the lung) or the peritoneum (lining of the abdomen). It is the only type of cancer that is primarily caused due to asbestos exposure. The symptoms of this cancer can be easily misinterpreted for any other common non-cancerous ailment. When the pleura is affected, one may experience cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, fever, hoarseness, difficulty in swallowing, etc. In case of peritoneal mesothelioma, the symptoms include abdominal swelling and pain, nausea, vomiting, and unexplained weight loss. According to the American Cancer Society, “The time between first exposure to asbestos and diagnosis of mesothelioma is usually 30 years or more.”
➦Treatment: Treatments for mesothelioma include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgery―more or less the same as suggested for treating any other cancer. However, because mesothelioma is relatively rare, the American Cancer Society suggests to always take second opinion from a doctor who has a lot of experience in treating this type of cancer.
- Chemotherapy involves the use of one or more anti-cancer medication, and a variety of drugs and chemicals that are efficacious in killing the cancerous cells.
- Radiation therapy uses a localized high-dose of radiation on malignant tumors, destroying the targeted cancer cells.
- Targeted therapy uses drugs or other substances to block the growth of cancerous cells by targeting the specific molecules responsible for the spreading and progression of cancer in nearby tissues.
- The surgical procedures would vary depending upon the location of the cancer and the overall health of the person. For pleural mesothelioma, the surgical options may include Extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP). As the American Cancer Society explains, EPP “operation removes the lung on the side of the cancer along with the pleura lining the chest wall on that side, the diaphragm on that side, the pericardium (the sac around the heart), and nearby lymph nodes. The diaphragm and the pericardium are then reconstructed with man-made materials.” Pleurectomy/decortication (P/D) is a procedure where, “all of the pleura lining the chest wall (on the side with the cancer) is removed along with the pleura coating the lung on that same side. The pleura coating the mediastinum and the diaphragm is also removed. The lung and diaphragm are not removed.”, as explained by the American Cancer Society. Debulking is opted where the aim is to remove the maximum amount of mesothelioma as possible, however, lesser tissue is removed in this procedure as compared to P/D.
- Surgical treatment for peritoneal mesothelioma may include: Omentectomy (removal of the omentum layer of fatty tissue that covers the abdominal contents) and Debulking (removal of the maximum possible amount of mesothelioma, which may involve removing certain portion of the intestine as well).
➦Definition: Other than the malignant and chronic diseases discussed above, asbestos exposure may lead to certain nonmalignant disorders affecting the lung and pleura as well. These include: formation of plaques in the pleura, thickening of the pleural lining, and fluid buildup between the layers of tissue that line the lungs and the wall of the chest cavity. The symptoms may not always be evident, but may include shortness of breath, wheezing, and pain. The National Cancer Institute states that, “Although pleural plaques are not precursors to lung cancer, evidence suggests that people with pleural disease caused by exposure to asbestos may be at increased risk for lung cancer.”
➦Treatment: The treatment is aimed at correcting the abnormality caused by asbestos exposure. Therefore, it would vary. The treatment measures basically include a combination of medication, surgery, and non-surgical procedures to relief the bothersome symptoms. Pleural effusion―where fluid accumulates between the layers of tissue that line the lungs and chest cavity―needs treatment measures to remove the unwanted fluid. In case of pleural thickening, the treatment would depend upon the severity of the condition and related complications.
- Through a procedure called thoracentesis, the doctor removes the fluid by inserting a needle and a catheter into the pleural space. For recurring fluid buildup, a long-term catheter is inserted through the skin into the pleural space, so that the patient can remove the fluid on his/her own at home. Another procedure to serve this purpose, and prevent recurring pleural effusions is pleurodesis. Here, an irritant such as talc or doxycycline is injected into the pleural space. This is done so that the substance inflames the pleura and chest wall, thereby enabling them to bind tightly to each other as they heal.
- In case of pleural thickening, the treatment options are limited and are basically aimed at treating the symptoms that come along. Medications are prescribed to ensure easy breathing. In case of severe complications, surgery (rarely) may be considered.
- Usually, pleural plaque needs no treatment as such because it is harmless in nature, and mostly does not cause any hindrance in the lung function. However, the treatment plan would vary depending upon the associated symptoms and possible complications.
As mentioned earlier, the damage caused by asbestos exposure is irreversible. Although the symptoms take decades to appear, those that have been exposed to this substance must ensure to be regular with their routine checkups and tests, so as to identify the abnormalities well in advance, before it gets too late. Early diagnosis and treatment can help improve the quality of life when it comes to living with an asbestos-related illness. Take care.
Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is meant for informational purposes only and should not be considered as a replacement for expert medical advice. The treatment methods mentioned herein may vary from one case to another. Kindly consult an experienced physician for accurate guidance.