Asbestos exposure has been recognized as a possible cause of gastrointestinal cancer since the 1960s. Occupational exposure and inhalation of asbestos fibers are considered to be the most common causes of asbestos-related disease. However, oral ingestion of asbestos fibers in occupational and domestic settings is now being implicated in the development of gastrointestinal cancer.1

What is Gastrointestinal Cancer 

Gastrointestinal cancer is any cancer of the gastrointestinal tract and digestive organs, which include the

  • Esophagus
  • Stomach
  • Pancreas
  • Biliary system, including the gallbladder and bile ducts
  • Liver
  • Small intestine
  • Large intestine, also known as the colon
  • Rectum
  • Anus

Gastrointestinal Cancer and Asbestos Exposure

Everyone is exposed to low levels of asbestos in the air, soil, and water. Oral ingestion of asbestos fibers leading to gastrointestinal cancer could theoretically come from any one of these sources. However, it is prolonged, daily exposure to asbestos that most often leads to disease. Usually, it takes 10 to 40 years after exposure for symptoms of an asbestos-related disease to develop.

Asbestos exposure is weakly linked with the development of gastrointestinal cancer, specifically, cancer of the esophagus, stomach, intestines, and rectum. The association between asbestos exposure and gastrointestinal cancer is strongest for stomach cancer. 

Risk Factors for Asbestos-Related Diseases

Occupational exposure to asbestos is the greatest risk factor for developing asbestos-related gastrointestinal cancer. Professions with the highest risk of exposure to asbestos include 

  • Construction
  • Demolition
  • Manufacturing
  • Mining and milling 
  • Automobile repair 
  • Firefighting

Additional risk factors for asbestos-related gastrointestinal cancer include smoking, alcohol consumption, and highly sedentary professions and lifestyles.2 

Symptoms of Gastrointestinal Cancer

Some symptoms of gastrointestinal cancer are consistent across different cancer types. Other symptoms are unique to a specific type of cancer. Below are the hallmark symptoms for each kind of gastrointestinal cancer:

Esophageal cancer

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Pain with swallowing
  • Weight loss 

Stomach cancer

  • Abdominal pain
  • Weight loss 

Pancreatic cancer

  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes 
  • Upper abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Weight loss 

Biliary cancer

  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes 
  • Generally painless

Liver cancer

  • Abdominal distention
  • Right upper abdominal pain 
  • Feeling full sooner after eating
  • Weight loss

Intestinal cancer

  • Low red blood cell count
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Rectal bleeding

Rectal cancer

  • Low red blood cell count
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Rectal bleeding 
  • Rectal mass

Anal cancer

  • Rectal bleeding
  • Anorectal mass
  • Anorectal pain

If you have experienced occupational exposure to asbestos and are currently experiencing symptoms concerning for gastrointestinal cancer, it is important that you make an appointment to see your healthcare provider. He or she can assess your overall health and your risk for gastrointestinal cancer and other asbestos-related diseases. 

Gastrointestinal Cancer and Asbestos