Smoking and Mesothelioma
It has long been known that smoking is hazardous to one’s health, causing a marked increase in instances of mesothelioma lung cancer among those who smoke regularly. However, smokers who are or have been exposed to asbestos carry a much higher risk of developing an even more serious disease – malignant mesothelioma, a difficult-to-treat cancer that affects the lining of the lungs (pleural mesothelioma), heart (pericardial mesothelioma), or abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma).
Exposure to asbestos has been identified as the major cause of mesothelioma cancer. The disease occurs when an individual inhales sharp asbestos fibers, which then become lodged in the lungs. Smoking, according to the Centers for Disease Control, weakens the lungs and decreases a body’s ability to remove asbestos fibers. Further, cigarette smoke irritates the air passages and causes them to produce more mucus which, in turn, blocks the passage of air and the dispelling of fibers.
According to a variety of studies that have been performed throughout the last two decades, while cigarette smoking alone does not lead to mesothelioma, cigarette smokers who are exposed to asbestos are about 50 to 84 times more likely to develop asbestos lung cancer and, most experts agree, these smokers are at least twice as likely to develop mesothelioma.
Furthermore, mesothelioma risk factors are higher for those who have already developed a less serious asbestos-related disease, namely asbestosis. Also, the more packs a day that an asbestosis sufferer smokes, the higher the chance for developing this aggressive cancer. Simply stated, those who have asbestosis should stop smoking. A cessation of smoking, according to studies by the National Cancer Institute, results in a 50 percent decrease in the risk for a mesothelioma diagnosis within about five years of quitting, a figure that is encouraging for smokers with early asbestos disease.
Smokers who have been exposed to asbestos and have not quit should submit to regular medical check-ups to determine the health of their lungs. Tests to monitor the formation of asbestos cancer, such as mesothelioma, might include a chest x-ray or a lung function test. In addition, a simple blood test known as the Mesomark® assay, used to detect the presence of mesothelioma, may be in order for smokers who suffered asbestos exposure.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The health consequences of smoking: a report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services, 2004.