Neuroendocrine Tumors, Potential Consequences of Asbestos Exposure


Occupational and environmental exposures have been historically related to an increased risk of severe diseases, among them various cancers. Although the exact mechanisms of higher cancer risk are not always well understood, several medical studies underline the relationship between asbestos exposure and cancerous tumors.

Asbestos has been proven to be a cancer-causing material and was extensively used in nearly all US Navy ships built before the 1980s. Workers who built these ships and personnel who served onboard these vessels risked developing asbestos-related diseases, among them cancers, decades after their exposure. One of the conditions linked to environmental or occupational exposure is neuroendocrine tumors (NET), malignancies that usually develop slowly over some years. NETs are cancers that occur anywhere in the body where endocrine cells are present. These types of cells are distributed throughout the human body, forming the endocrine and nervous systems and helping regulate various body functions, such as :

  • growth
  • reproduction
  • metabolism

Neoplasms, or abnormal growths of tissues such as NETs, may occur in the cells of the endocrine or nervous system, but the most common places for these tumors to develop are in the:

  • lungs
  • small intestine
  • pancreas
  • appendix
  • rectum

To date, cancers are among the leading causes of death worldwide, and about 17,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with NETs each year. Additionally, clinical data shows that the number of people who receive a neuroendocrine or carcinoid tumor diagnosis has been increasing in recent years. NETs are of various types, but some of the most frequently diagnosed are:

  • carcinoid tumors - a slowly developing form in various organs such as the stomach, appendix, small intestine, colon, rectum, and lungs
  • adrenal cancer - occurs in one or both of the suprarenal glands
  • Merkel cell carcinoma - an aggressive and rare type of skin cancer
  • pancreatic NETs - rare forms of pancreatic cancer
  • paraganglioma - develops in specific nerve cells
  • pheochromocytoma - usually a benign tumor that forms in one or both of the adrenal glands responsible for hormone secretion

Nowadays, almost all NETs are considered malignant, but there are differences in cancer's aggression: some invade neighboring cells quickly, while others don't grow or spread. However, today's medical science thinks all of them are cancerous conditions. Some of the risk factors that increase the probability of developing NETs include:

  • asbestos exposure: if asbestos fibers reach the lungs, small intestine, stomach, colon, or rectum, they may contribute to the development of NETs
  • genetic mutation: can cause multiple endocrine neoplasia, the growth of tumors in the hormone-producing cells
  • Von Hippel-Lindau disease: growth of abnormal blood vessels, tumors, and cysts, precursor of pheochromocytoma
  • tuberous sclerosis: benign tumors in the brain, lungs, kidneys, eyes, or skin that may turn into malignancies
  • neurofibromatosis: tumor growth along the nerves and in the skin increases the risk of developing NETs
  • age: people between the ages of 50 and 60 are more likely to have NETs
  • gender: men are more susceptible to having NETs
  • immune system weakness: people with a poor immune system are more prone to develop NETs

Symptoms and Diagnosis

NETs are generally classified depending on whether they secrete hormones in the body. When there is hormone secretion, they are called functional neuroendocrine tumors; when they do not produce hormones, they are called nonfunctional neuroendocrine tumors. Accordingly, the most common NET symptoms can also be classified into two categories:

  • hormonal neuroendocrine symptoms - including severe diarrhea, gastric ulcers, or uncontrolled blood sugar that resists treatment. The produced hormones can vary depending on the body part where the tumor has formed.
  • mechanical neuroendocrine symptoms - are related to the function of one body part, such as a small bowel obstruction or pain in a specific place. These symptoms occur due to the tumor physically pushing on another structure.

While the symptoms of NETs may vary from person to person, there are some typical signs to consider, depending on the cancer's location and whether the condition is benign or malignant:

  • face or neck redness
  • shortness of breath
  • heart palpitations
  • diarrhea
  • wheezing
  • high blood pressure
  • fatigue
  • persisting cough
  • feet and ankles swelling
  • discolored skin patches
  • frequent urination
  • significantly increased appetite
  • lingering thirst sensation

Diagnosis of NETs usually occurs while patients seek help for other symptoms, such as pain due to metastatic cancer; some patients go to the doctor with a gallbladder problem, and a neuroendocrine tumor in the liver is discovered. Other people experience hormonal symptoms, which then point doctors in the direction of cancer as the source. There are cases where the tumor is detected purely by chance. It may be discovered during a colonoscopy, X-ray, or CT scan for a broken bone. These patients usually have no symptoms before their NET diagnosis.

NETs and Asbestos Exposure

Long-term asbestos exposure can be the cause of NETs developing in the lungs or the gastrointestinal tract. Asbestos fibers were found in 25% of people suffering from pulmonary carcinoid tumors. However, only a small percentage of lung cancers are neuroendocrine tumors.

NETs can occur in people with a history of occupational or military asbestos exposure at some point in their lives, given the significant amount of asbestos fibers found in the bodies of these individuals. Because asbestos threads can travel through the bloodstream after inhalation or ingestion, they can easily reach the lungs or one of the organs of the gastrointestinal tract. They will embed themselves in the lining of the organs, causing inflammation and tissue scarring over time, which can lead to the development of NETs. As with all asbestos-related diseases, it may take between 20 and 50 years for NETs to occur. Those who were exposed to asbestos over a long time may develop NETs in the:

  • lungs
  • stomach
  • small intestine
  • colon
  • rectum
  • appendix
  • esophagus
  • pharynx
  • larynx
  • bronchi

While research struggles to find the cause of NETs, even if there's no known cause of this cancer, asbestos exposure was found to contribute significantly to their development. In people with a known history of asbestos exposure, NETs may turn malignant even if they can initially be benign since asbestos fibers are a known human carcinogen. As medical technology such as endoscopy and imaging tests used in NET diagnosis evolved, a more significant number of individuals exposed to asbestos received this diagnosis. However, it is essential to know that neuroendocrine tumors do not make veterans eligible to file a claim, as other cancers have a more direct connection with exposure to the toxic mineral. Even so, NETs are a sure sign that veterans' health is strongly affected by degenerative processes due to asbestos exposure.

Assisting Navy Veterans to Receive the Rightful Compensation

The presence of asbestos potentially endangered the health of every person onboard naval vessels built before the 1980s due to the Navy's mandate to use asbestos in shipbuilding. Applying the toxic mineral on those vessels led to thousands of Navy veterans having to deal with diseases that devastate their health and drain their finances.

Former service members of the Navy, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine, or US Army Transport Service may qualify for payment from asbestos trust funds and the VA if they can show proof of asbestos exposure and have been diagnosed with the following asbestos-related cancer:

We can help by putting you in touch with expert attorneys who specialize in asbestos claims and are ready to take on your case.

If you have a cancer diagnosis please contact us

Related News & Updates