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Mesothelioma is overwhelmingly a cancer of older men. This is largely due to the fact that most cases are caused by exposure to asbestos and develop over many decades after first exposure. Exposure for most people diagnosed with mesothelioma occurred in the workplace, where more men were exposed at jobs in construction, in the U.S. Navy, in shipping, and in other industries in which female workers have historically been outnumbered by men.

Still, women do get mesothelioma, and the causes can range from direct asbestos exposure to environmental and genetic factors to secondhand exposure to asbestos from men who worked around the mineral. While fewer women are diagnosed with this aggressive type of cancer, those who are have a slight advantage over men, with better responses to treatment and longer survival times.

mesothelioma in women

Incidence in Women

When mesothelioma is studied around the world, the incidence is always lower in women. One study looked at diagnoses of mesothelioma in the U.S. between 2003 and 2008 and found that the incidence in men was 1.93 cases per 100,000, while for women it was only 0.41 per 100,000. The United Kingdom and Australia have some of the highest incidences in the world for women at 0.7 per 100,000.

Women and Asbestos Exposure

For women and men, the number one risk factor for mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. This mineral was used extensively in past decades in most construction applications, in ship building, and even in automobiles. Anyone, women or men, who worked in construction, as plumbers, pipefitters, welders, electricians, automotive mechanics, in ship building, on ships, or in factories that manufactured materials using asbestos, were put at risk for developing mesothelioma. One job in which women were directly exposed in greater numbers was teaching. School buildings in the past contained asbestos, and after years of exposure, some teachers, many of them women, developed mesothelioma.

This kind of on-the-job, primary exposure to asbestos put many more men than women at risk of mesothelioma. More men worked in these jobs than women did in the decades during which asbestos was used, before the mid-1970s. A more common way in which women were exposed to asbestos was through secondary contact through men who worked around the mineral. A man working in construction, for instance, might have gotten asbestos fibers in his hair and clothes, brought it home, and exposed his family to them.

A third way women could be exposed to asbestos was through the environment. This depends highly on location. For example, a study looked at a group of about 3,000 women living in or near a certain town in Australia between the 1940s and 1990s. The town was located close to an asbestos mine and mesothelioma was found to have caused eight percent of deaths in the group of women studied. This is much higher than is found in general populations.

Another example of environmental exposure has occurred in a region of Turkey in which there is natural asbestos in the environment. One study found that women in this region were actually at a greater risk of being exposed to asbestos than men, the reverse of what is seen in most places in the world. The researchers concluded that this may be a result of the practice of whitewashing homes with asbestos-containing white soil, natural to the area. Women traditionally did this chore, and it may explain the increased exposure.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosis strategies are similar for men and women. As with men, women may not be diagnosed until decades after exposure to asbestos, but they are typically diagnosed at a younger age than men with mesothelioma. Diagnosis typically includes imaging of the chest cavity, ruling out more common conditions, biopsies of tissue and fluid, and histological examination of the cells. As with men, most women get a diagnosis of pleural mesothelioma, but a greater percentage of women with mesothelioma will be diagnosed with the peritoneal form, the cancer that originates in the abdominal lining.

Treatment options are also similar for both men and women, although because women are diagnosed at a younger age on average, they may be eligible for more aggressive treatments. Treatment may include a combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. An aggressive surgery called an extrapleural pneumonectomy may be an option for some women. It involves removing one entire lung, the pleura, part of the diaphragm, and lymph nodes. Women may have a better chance of surviving this surgery and it is the best chance any patient with pleural mesothelioma has of going into remission.

Prognosis

The prognosis is never very positive for anyone diagnosed with mesothelioma. It is a particularly aggressive cancer that spreads quickly and is difficult to treat. However, studies have found that women have a slight survival advantage and generally receive a better prognosis than men. Some of the characteristic differences are that women are usually diagnosed at a younger age, which may allow for more aggressive treatment and they survive longer after surgical procedures. For these reasons women may be better candidates for radical surgical procedures to treat mesothelioma.

Women and Legal Action

For people who developed mesothelioma after years of workplace exposure, lawsuits and asbestos trust funds represent ways to get justice. Most people exposed on the job did not know they were at risk and believe their employers or the manufacturers of the materials they used were liable. Women have historically had less success taking legal action for mesothelioma because the connection to workplace asbestos is not as strong as it is for most men who were directly exposed on the job.

One example was a case that went to the Ohio Supreme Court. The plaintiff, who died before the final decision, was a woman named Mary Adams. Her husband worked as a pipefitter at Goodyear between 1973 and 1983. He brought home asbestos on his work clothes. Mary shook the dust from his clothes each day before washing them and in 2007, was diagnosed with mesothelioma. The Court ultimately ruled in favor of Goodyear because of a state statute that said claims liability for asbestos exposure could only apply to exposure that occurred on the company’s premises. Because Mary was exposed in her home, she was denied justice and compensation.

In spite of this setback, it is important that women who were exposed to asbestos determine if liability could be assigned to a company or organization. Mining companies, employers, factory owners, and other groups that used asbestos and exposed workers and their families to the mineral, should be held accountable. While men more often suffer from mesothelioma, women too have been diagnosed and have died because of this cancer.

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