Mesothelioma is rare, and for decades most patients who received this diagnosis shared a similar background: older men who served in the military or worked in specific blue-collar jobs, like industrial work, construction, or manufacturing. But that doesn’t mean women are immune.
Women and Asbestos
Even though the majority of mesothelioma patients are men who were exposed to asbestos on the job, an increasing number of women are facing this diagnosis as well. Currently, one-quarter — 25 percent — of those fighting asbestos cancer are women, according to Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER), a database that has tracked mesothelioma cases since 1975.
Women and Direct Asbestos Exposure
There are various reasons for the increase. According to an updated U.S. Census Bureau report released in 2017, one-third of women are working in manufacturing, a job that is considered ‘high risk’ for exposure to asbestos. There are also more female police officers, paramedics, and firefighters who respond to disasters. Many of these first responders encounter asbestos fibers from insulation in old buildings.
Asbestos is no longer widely used for construction projects here in the United States, but it’s still a common insulation material in buildings overseas, especially in the Middle East. Female members of the military who are stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other war-torn areas could be exposed to many toxic substances, including asbestos. There is some concern within the medical community that’s today’s asbestos exposure could plague tomorrow’s veterans.
Women and Indirect Asbestos Exposure: Still A Direct Threat
Occupational asbestos exposure is responsible for the vast majority of mesothelioma cases in men. But women often inhale or ingest asbestos through a different route, known as secondary or ‘indirect’ exposure. This occurs when a spouse, family member, or friend who works directly with the toxin brings it into the home. Asbestos fibers or dust can easily stick to clothing, skin, or hair and end up stuck in the carpet or embedded in furniture. Women who did the laundry or cleaned the home were repeatedly and inadvertently exposed to the tiny, toxic fibers.
Non-occupational asbestos exposure continues to be the most common factor in a woman’s mesothelioma diagnosis. A 2014 study conducted in Denmark’s Northern Jutland region showed nearly half of women diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma were exposed through a loved one — usually their husbands or sons. Researchers analyzed hospital records of 24 female mesothelioma patients from 1996 to 2012 and concluded 46 percent developed cancer as a result of domestic or ‘indirect’ exposure, as opposed to only 13 percent who worked directly with the material.
Mesothelioma Treatment for Women
Treatment options for mesothelioma are the same, regardless of gender. Doctors generally use a combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery to treat the disease in both women and men. The type of treatment depends on how far the cancer has progressed. If the tumors are contained to a certain area of the body and have not spread, the treatment focus will be curative — designed to eradicate the cancer and significantly prolong the patient’s life. Medical treatment for female patients facing more advanced stages of the disease aims to make them comfortable — known as palliative care.
While treatment options are the same for men and women, the outcomes are often different. Mesothelioma is classified using three different cell types — epithelioid, sarcomatoid, and biphasic — and the medical community believes those cell types and gender can play a role in how well the body responds to treatment. According to the results of 2017 study, after treatment, women with malignant pleural mesothelioma who have tumors of the epithelioid subtype lived longer than their male counterparts.
Why? The simple answer: women have estrogen, and certain receptors within that hormone may be protective against cancer. These results are promising, but more research is needed.