Mesothelioma cancer survivor, Virgil Anderson recently contacted GC4W about her survival story, and invited us to share her story on the GC4W Women’s Health page. It is her hope that her story would enlighten our readers on mesothelioma in women, and inform on the type of resources available. Virgil was treated by the career network at mesothelioma.net, and we have decided to share an article of theirs regarding Mesothelioma in Women.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A special thanks to Vigil for sharing her story with GC4W and hoping to spread awareness about mesothelioma in women. Read more on mesothelioma.net.