01. Women and Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma in Women
Malignant mesothelioma is a rare aggressive cancer caused by asbestos exposure. It most often develops in the lining around the abdomen or lungs.
Asbestos exposure causes malignant mesothelioma. When inhaled or ingested, the tiny asbestos fibers can become lodged in tissue. Over time, the fibers trigger irritation and inflammation, which can lead to tumor development.
Female mesothelioma patients may have experienced secondary asbestos exposure. Secondary exposure can happen when other people, such as a spouse, bring home asbestos fibers on their clothes or belongings.
Female patients may develop mesothelioma from occupational exposure as well. Factory workers, firefighters and people who work in buildings containing asbestos are at risk of exposure.
Sex refers to the biological and physiological traits associated with female or male individuals. Gender refers to the socially constructed traits associated with men and women. Some medical publications use these terms interchangeably, but they are not equivalent. On this page, information is reported using the same term as the source material.
How Is Mesothelioma in Women Different Than in Men?
Asbestos exposure can cause malignant mesothelioma in anybody. However, there are a few differences among female mesothelioma cases versus male.
For instance, female patients account for a greater percentage of peritoneal mesothelioma cases than pleural. The opposite is true for male patients.
Female mesothelioma patients have several other distinguishing characteristics. They tend to have better survival in cases of peritoneal and pleural mesothelioma than their male counterparts. One study analyzed 888 mesothelioma patients diagnosed between 1999 and 2017. All patients received some form of treatment. The median overall survival time differed between sexes:
- Female patients: 22 months
- Male patients: 14 months
Female pleural mesothelioma patients also seem to present certain symptoms more often. For instance, female patients report higher incidences of cough and chest pain than male patients.
02. Survival and Prognosis
Survival for Women With Mesothelioma
Survival rates in mesothelioma patients depend on various factors. These include mesothelioma stage, treatment protocol and patient health. Female mesothelioma patients may have better survival rates. Researchers have observed this in both pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma cases.
5-Year Survival Rates for Female Versus Male Mesothelioma Patients
Source: The National Cancer Institute, Cancer Statistics Review 1975 – 2017
*These survival rates include all reported forms of mesothelioma. The rates may include patients who chose not to undergo therapeutic treatment for mesothelioma.
There are three types of mesothelioma that may affect women:
- Pleural mesothelioma: This type forms in the pleura, the lining of the lung
- Peritoneal mesothelioma: This type forms in the peritoneum, the lining of the abdomen
- Pericardial mesothelioma: This type forms in the pericardium, the lining of the heart
Different types of mesothelioma are often associated with different treatment options and prognoses.
In general, treatment options for female and male patients are the same.
However, female patients generally have a longer life expectancy.
Pleural Mesothelioma Survival for Women
The average life expectancy for pleural mesothelioma with treatment is around 18 months. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the 5-year survival rates for pleural mesothelioma are:
- Female patients: 16%
- Male patients: 7%
This survival gap also appears with specific treatments. One study treated pleural mesothelioma patients with surgery. Chemotherapy and photodynamic therapy followed. Female patients had a median survival of 57 months, or nearly 5 years. Male patients had a median survival of 28 months, or less than 2.5 years.
Another study found male pleural mesothelioma patients had a 28% higher risk of dying than female patients.
Peritoneal Mesothelioma Survival for Women
The average life expectancy for peritoneal mesothelioma with treatment is 31 months. However, experts have reported longer life expectancy and increased survival rates for female peritoneal patients.
One study looked at peritoneal mesothelioma patients undergoing multimodal treatment. Male study patients had a median survival of 41 months. Female study patients had a median survival of about 10 years.
That means female patients in the study lived nearly three times as long as the male patients.
In another study, male peritoneal patients had a 38% higher risk of dying than female patients.
Factors Affecting Survival in Women With Mesothelioma
Experts have suggested various explanations for better survival rates in female patients with mesothelioma.
Some experts theorize women seek medical attention sooner, leading to earlier diagnosis and treatment. However, this may not entirely account for the difference. One study of more than 14,000 patients indicated female and male patients get diagnosed at similar stages. So, earlier medical attention may not explain this survival disparity.
Experts have also noted women tend to have tumors with favorable characteristics, including location.
In one study, female patients accounted for about 28% of total mesothelioma cases and 61% of peritoneal cases. Peritoneal tumors often respond better to treatment than pleural tumors. This means female patients were more likely than male patients to have a favorable tumor location.
Some researchers propose estrogen may affect mesothelioma prognosis. They point to the existence of estrogen receptors on tumor cells. The effect of the circulating estrogen on this receptor in female patients may slow the growth of tumor cells. By slowing tumor growth, estrogen may help female patients survive mesothelioma longer than male patients.
General health, age, tumor location, cell type, and treatment approach can also affect prognosis.
Mesothelioma Cell Types in Women
In one study, female patients accounted for about 21% of total cases, but 25% of epithelioid cases. This means female patients were more likely to have a favorable cell type than male patients.
Women may also develop certain rare mesothelioma cell types with favorable prognoses more often than men. For instance, well-differentiated papillary mesothelioma (WDPM) has a 5-year survival rate of 90% with treatment. This rare form of mesothelioma occurs most frequently in women of reproductive age, especially those with a history of ovarian cancer or endometriosis.
This tendency to develop favorable mesothelioma subtypes may contribute to extended survival of female mesothelioma patients.
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03. Symptoms in Women
Mesothelioma Symptoms in Women
The symptoms of mesothelioma can vary based upon the type, stage and location of tumors. In early stages, patients may not have symptoms at all. Mesothelioma symptoms can be non-specific or similar to those of other diseases. Because of this, mesothelioma symptoms can be mistaken for other conditions at first. This can lead to delayed or incorrect diagnosis.
When symptoms do arise, some have been reported more frequently in female patients than male.
Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms in Women
Researchers have observed higher rates of some symptoms in female patients. In one study, researchers found:
- 82% of female patients experienced cough, compared to 33% of male patients.
- 73% of female patients experienced chest pain, compared to 28% of male patients.
In addition to cough and chest pain, other common pleural mesothelioma symptoms include:
- Blood clotting disorders
- Body aches
- Coughing up blood (hemoptysis)
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- Loss of appetite
- Night sweats
- Pleural effusion
- Pleural plaques
- Shortness of breath
- Unexplained weight loss
Pleural mesothelioma may be misdiagnosed as the flu, bronchitis, pneumonia or lung cancer.
Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms in Women
The symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma differ from those of pleural mesothelioma. Female patients diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma have reported the following symptoms:
- Abdominal/pelvic pain
- Abdominal swelling/bloating
- Ascites/peritoneal effusion (fluid collecting in the abdominal cavity)
- Bowel obstruction
- Neck pain
- Swelling of the lymph nodes above the collar bone (supraclavicular lymphadenopathy)
- Weight loss
The symptoms above were reported by female patients, but male patients may experience the same symptoms. Anyone experiencing the symptoms above should report past asbestos exposure to their doctor. This can help the doctor arrive at an accurate diagnosis.
How Long Does It Take for Mesothelioma Symptoms to Arise?
Latency period is the amount of time between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma development. Latency periods range from about 10 to 50 years.
Sometimes, symptoms don’t appear until later stages of the disease. Multiple studies have reported sex- or gender-linked differences in latency.
In one study, female patients experienced a latency period about six years longer than male patients.
In a different study, researchers found conflicting results. Pleural mesothelioma latency periods in this study were nearly even for women and men. However, women with peritoneal mesothelioma had a latency period nine years shorter than the men.
The difference in latency between men and women is unclear. Regardless, all individuals with past asbestos exposure have an elevated risk of mesothelioma, lung cancer and other asbestos-related conditions. Doctors can help such individuals watch for signs of asbestos-related illnesses.
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04. How Are Women Diagnosed?
Diagnosing Women With Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma diagnoses in female and male patients follow the same basic process. Doctors administer various tests to diagnose mesothelioma, including imaging scans and biopsies. These tests help determine the cause of symptoms, rule out other illnesses and make a definitive mesothelioma diagnosis.
However, female patients with peritoneal mesothelioma have experienced substantial rates of misdiagnosis in the past. This may be due to different factors, including the lengthy latency period and the ambiguous nature of certain symptoms.
Women with known asbestos exposure should report their history to a physician. This can help the doctor narrow down the true cause of the patient’s symptoms and lead to an accurate diagnosis.
General Diagnostic Steps for Mesothelioma in Women
Diagnosis of mesothelioma may include:
Misdiagnosis of Mesothelioma in Women
Given the vague nature of mesothelioma symptoms, misdiagnosis is possible for any patient.
At least one study found high levels of misdiagnosis for some mesothelioma patients. The study examined the rates of misdiagnosis among female peritoneal mesothelioma patients.
Nearly half of the female study patients were initially misdiagnosed. Misdiagnosed conditions included other types of mesothelioma and other diseases of the mesothelial lining. Despite the misdiagnoses, more than 74% of the study patients survived for three years or more.
Patients should proactively report any known asbestos exposure to their doctor. A healthcare professional can help monitor for signs of mesothelioma and other asbestos illnesses. This can aid early diagnosis. Patients diagnosed in earlier stages tend to have more treatment options.
05. Treating Mesothelioma
Treatment Options for Women With Mesothelioma
Women with mesothelioma have the same treatment options as any other mesothelioma patient. Mesothelioma doctors often recommend a multimodal treatment approach for this disease. This approach uses two or more treatment methods and has been successful in extending survival.
Women may respond differently to some treatments than men. In one study, female mesothelioma patients who received aggressive surgeries had a lower mortality risk than their male counterparts.
In another study, patients with peritoneal mesothelioma underwent several forms of treatment. This included surgery and one or more additional treatments with abdominal chemotherapy. Female patients had a median survival of 7.1 years. Male patients had a median survival of 3.7 years. This means female patients lived nearly twice as long as male patients.
Female study patients also had a 5-year survival rate of 65%. The same rate for male patients was 46%. So female patients also had better long-term survival than male patients.
Some common treatment types include:
- Surgery: This treatment can fully or partially remove cancerous tumors and affected organs, tissues and lymph nodes.
- Chemotherapy: This treatment uses drugs to attack fast-growing mesothelioma cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs may be circulated through the body or applied in area-targeted washes.
- Radiation: This treatment uses targeted high energy to kill malignant cells and prevent cancer from spreading.
- Immunotherapy: This treatment uses the patient’s immune system to find and fight cancer cells.
Alternative treatments may help female patients manage symptoms. These may include options like acupuncture, yoga, massage therapy, physical therapy and nutrition management. Additionally, patients may be able to find new treatments via clinical trials at cancer centers.
06. Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos Exposure in Women
Research indicates female mesothelioma patients often experience secondary exposure. However, they can also be exposed to asbestos at work, which is occupational exposure. Regardless of the exposure source, there is no safe level of contact with asbestos.
Asbestos risk is often thought of as a risk for industrial workers. However, exposure risk can come from other sources besides industry. Older buildings, such as homes and schools, may have been constructed with asbestos. This can present an occupational exposure risk to office workers, teachers and household workers.
Female individuals may face an increased risk of developing mesothelioma from the same levels of asbestos exposure as male individuals. Researchers have theorized that this heightened susceptibility stems from lung size differences. People with smaller respiratory systems may be more likely to retain inhaled asbestos fibers.
Non-Occupational Asbestos Exposure
Researchers attribute many mesothelioma cases in women to asbestos exposure outside of their job.
One study investigated asbestos exposure in people with mesothelioma. The researchers attributed about 40% of female mesothelioma cases to exposure that was not from their occupation. The study also found female mesothelioma patients were nearly 10 times as likely as male patients to experience only non-occupational exposure.
Secondary asbestos exposure is a form of non-occupational exposure. For example, women may encounter asbestos when laundering their husband’s work clothing. Clothing can carry asbestos fibers into the home, where they could easily become airborne. This may have led to exposure for anyone in the household. Similarly, women who live near naturally occurring asbestos can encounter it in their daily lives.
Heather Von St. James’ Secondary Exposure Led to Mesothelioma Diagnosis
Long-time mesothelioma survivor Heather Von St. James experienced secondhand asbestos exposure. Her father worked with asbestos products. He often came home with a coat covered in asbestos dust. Heather frequently wore the coat during her chores. This non-occupational exposure during childhood led to her development of pleural mesothelioma.
Heather was diagnosed at 36 years old and given a prognosis of 15 months. She received multimodal treatment, which included aggressive surgery and chemotherapy. Over 17 years later, she is now living cancer free and continues to share her story with others. Heather uses her story to spread awareness about mesothelioma and the risks of asbestos exposure.
Across the globe, domestic duties frequently led to women’s exposure to asbestos. For example, some Turkish villages used asbestos-contaminated soil to whitewash their homes. In one of these villages, the average annual incidence rate of malignant pleural mesothelioma was:
- 114.8 per 100,000 male villagers
- 159.8 per 100,000 female villagers
Researchers have suggested this higher rate of mesothelioma in female people may be due to higher asbestos exposure. Whitewashing with asbestos may have exposed the female residents to sustained, high levels of asbestos. These levels may have been higher than those experienced by the men. Either way, these rates reinforce the hazards of asbestos exposure for all people.
Talcum Powder, Asbestos and Women
In addition to domestic work-related asbestos exposure, some women experienced asbestos exposure from talcum powder.
Talc and asbestos naturally form near each other in the earth. When raw talc is mined, it can be contaminated with asbestos. Products made with talc are in turn contaminated, and repeated use of these products may have led to asbestos exposure. This includes talcum powder products and makeup.
One study linked a woman’s mesothelioma to her use of talcum powder. Researchers identified amosite asbestos fibers in the talc product. Analysis revealed similar fibers in the woman’s lungs.
A more recent study examined mesothelioma cases in 75 individuals with a history of talcum powder use. Experts analyzed tissue samples from 11 of these individuals. Tissue samples from all 11 patients contained asbestos. The study authors attributed the presence of asbestos fibers to talcum powder use.
Experts have linked cases of mesothelioma and ovarian cancer to asbestos-contaminated talc.
Compensation for Asbestos-Contaminated Talc
Many women used Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J’s) talcum powder products for decades. Some of these products tested positive for asbestos as early as the 1970s.
A 2022 Bloomberg article reported more than 40,000 talc-related claims have been filed against Johnson & Johnson. During some trial proceedings, lawyers presented evidence showing Johnson & Johnson knew their products contained asbestos. Now, many women with asbestos-related illnesses have filed lawsuits against J&J for their role in these diseases.
Legal compensation for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases is possible. These awards can help cover medical costs, lost wages and other financial impacts of mesothelioma.
Occupational Asbestos Exposure
For many years, more men than women have occupied high-risk asbestos occupations. However, there was a large influx of women in factories, shipyards and other asbestos jobsites during World War II. These workers were among the most at risk of exposure. They handled numerous asbestos products including insulation, brake materials, tiling and pipes.
In recent years, more women have entered the blue-collar and emergency services workforce. Asbestos may still be found in older machinery and equipment or buildings.
A prominent example is firefighters. Currently, more than 6,200 female firefighters are working full time in the United States. While risking their lives to help citizens, they may also be putting themselves at risk of asbestos exposure and resulting mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis.
As the gender gap in at-risk occupations closes, it is important for women to understand the risks associated with occupational asbestos exposure.
Asbestos Exposure and Female Veterans
As of 2020, women accounted for 16% of the U.S. armed forces. Military veterans may be at higher risk of asbestos exposure from places like shipyards, personnel facilities and military bases. About 30% of individuals diagnosed with mesothelioma are veterans. Every branch of the U.S. military used asbestos during the 20th century. This asbestos use continues to affect veterans today. Veterans and their families may also be at risk of secondhand exposure.
Veterans diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease may be eligible for U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits and compensation. Family members of a veteran who died from an asbestos-related disease may also be eligible for VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (VA DIC). Eligible veterans can also seek treatment at VA medical centers. Veterans may also choose to pursue compensation through other avenues.
07. Legal Options
Asbestos Legal Options for Women With Mesothelioma
There are legal options available to female mesothelioma patients and their loved ones. Pursuing legal action can help victims of asbestos exposure receive justice, hold responsible parties accountable and gain compensation.
Working with an experienced mesothelioma law firm may help patients and their loved ones receive maximum compensation. Financial compensation can help cover treatment costs, lost wages and end-of-life expenses.
Mesothelioma patients may pursue a few main types of compensation. These include asbestos trust fund claims, settlements and lawsuit verdicts. Asbestos lawsuits may be personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits. Veterans may also file a VA claim to receive benefits or compensation from the VA.
Experienced lawyers at mesothelioma law firms can help victims navigate asbestos litigation and work to meet any requirements on their client’s behalf.
Legal Challenges Women With Mesothelioma May Face
Many women with asbestos-related illnesses experienced secondhand exposure. This type of exposure can be difficult to pinpoint, which can make a lawsuit more complex.
Most asbestos liability cases focus on a company or employer’s failure to warn of asbestos. So, these cases usually need to trace the exposure to a source. This may prove difficult for victims of secondary asbestos exposure who don’t know how they were exposed.
However, mesothelioma lawyers can help secondary-exposure victims trace their exposure. These attorneys can use their experience and records to determine eligibility for lawsuits. They can also help potential plaintiffs navigate state laws and determine which jurisdiction would be best for filing a lawsuit.
Experienced attorneys can handle the entire filing process on the patient’s behalf. This gives mesothelioma patients time to focus on their treatment and wellness while lawyers pursue compensation for them.
Compensation for Women With Mesothelioma
Various asbestos exposure possibilities could lead to women developing mesothelioma. These patients may be eligible to file a lawsuit.
Some of the most well-known lawsuits involving women exposed to asbestos are those brought against Johnson & Johnson (J&J) regarding their talc products. Cases continue to develop, but some notable settlements include:
- In April 2018, J&J had their first mesothelioma lawsuit loss when a New Jersey jury awarded a female plaintiff $117 million.
- In July 2018, a Missouri jury awarded $4.69 billion to 22 women who had developed cancer from J&J’s talcum powder. J&J later appealed, and the verdict was set at $2.11 billion.
Successful verdicts and settlements have also been gained for victims of secondhand asbestos exposure. In 2017, a woman who had secondary asbestos exposure through her husband, a mechanic, received a $75 million mesothelioma verdict.
Mesothelioma law is highly specialized, and asbestos laws are complex and vary from state to state. Experienced mesothelioma attorneys and law firms have the resources and experience needed to handle every aspect of a legal case. This includes determining eligibility, filing the case, negotiating settlements and more. Contact a mesothelioma legal professional today to learn about compensation options.
08. Common Questions
Common Questions About Mesothelioma and Women
How common is mesothelioma in women?
- Women account for about 25% of all mesothelioma diagnoses. They are often exposed to asbestos through non-occupational situations, such as secondhand exposure or use of talc products. Certain types of mesothelioma may be more common in women. For example, women may be more likely to develop peritoneal mesothelioma than men.
Can women get mesothelioma with no asbestos exposure?
- Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma. It is a common misconception that asbestos exposure only occurs in industrial workplaces. It is possible to get mesothelioma from secondhand exposure, such as living with someone who works with asbestos-containing materials. Women may also encounter asbestos in old schools or homes, or from talc products.
How long can women live with mesothelioma?
- With treatment, women with mesothelioma often have life expectancies ranging from 1.5 to 15 years depending on tumor location and treatment approach. Various factors can influence life expectancy, such as mesothelioma type, age, cell type, overall health and stage at diagnosis.