Women’s History Month was established in 1987 to celebrate and commemorate the contributions and accomplishments of women in history. Remembering the struggles, the sacrifices, and the victories of women in the mesothelioma community is an important part of moving treatment and activism forward.
Although mesothelioma is rare in women, they make up an important part of the community surrounding mesothelioma treatment and activism. During Women’s History month, it is important to remember female survivors, activists, and doctors working every day to improve the lives of those affected by mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma in Women
Women account for about 25% of mesothelioma cases, likely due to a decreased chance of on-the-job exposure compared to the male population. Only about 0.41 out of every 100,000 women will face a mesothelioma diagnosis during their lifetime, compared to 1.93 out of every 100,000 men.
Although the disease is less common in women, multiple studies from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and The Annals of Thoracic Surgery have shown that women have better prognoses than men. Women show lower mortality rates following surgery, which may contribute to an increased 5-year survival rate of 13.4% in women compared to 4.5% in men.
These differences in prognosis and survival open many interesting avenues for study and research that have the potential to improve treatment for patients of both genders. Women advocates, doctors, and survivors in the mesothelioma field are constantly striving to find new and better ways to fight this rare type of cancer.
Women Patients Fighting Mesothelioma
When it comes to mesothelioma advocacy, survivors are always at the center of the action. Many women living with mesothelioma choose to fight not only for themselves but for others.
Brenda was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma — which affects the lining of the stomach — in 2004. A victim of secondary exposure, Breda first encountered asbestos as a child when her father unknowingly brought home asbestos fibers on his work clothes. She was exposed again as an adult through her husband who worked as a mechanic.
Brenda and her medical team chose to treat her mesothelioma with multiple surgeries and chemotherapy. She is a strong advocate for the effectiveness of dedicated specialist care.
Ginger was only 40 years old when she was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2010. Her family was already struggling with her husband’s diagnosis of a benign brain tumor, which left him unable to work.
Even while she was undergoing aggressive treatment for her mesothelioma, Ginger never stopped fighting for the type of life she wanted. She continued going on mission trips with her church to help children and families abroad. She currently dedicates her time to volunteering with mesothelioma survivors and their families.
Mary Jane was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 2003. The cancer was discovered during routine gallbladder surgery and came as a significant shock.
Mary Jane and her family sought treatment and support quickly, and after a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, she was declared cancer-free. Mary Jane now works as a speaker and advocates for other mesothelioma patients across the country.
There are plenty more women survivors of mesothelioma that are striving to highlight the issues faced by mesothelioma patients all over the world.
Women Mesothelioma Doctors
Women doctors are working every day to treat patients and find a cure. Women in mesothelioma are doing groundbreaking research to discover new treatment options and improve the prognosis for their patients.
Dr. Anne Tsao
Dr. Tsao works at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. She specializes in the treatment of pleural mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the lungs. Dr. Tsao is an internationally recognized expert in her field.
In addition to her work treating patients, Dr. Tsao is also an innovative researcher who developed the idea of proton therapy as a treatment for mesothelioma. She is widely published and her continued research into the mechanisms of mesothelioma on a molecular level is avidly followed.
Dr. Hedy Lee Kindler
Dr. Kindler is one of the premier mesothelioma specialists in the United States. Her career as a medical practitioner and researcher has spanned over more than 20 years. She has done vital lifesaving research to invent and improve mesothelioma treatment therapies.
She specializes in the treatment of both peritoneal and pleural mesothelioma while working with her team at the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center to create treatment plans tailored to each patient’s specific needs.
Dr. Lynette Scholl
Based at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, Dr. Scholl’s field of specialty is the pathology of cancers like pleural mesothelioma.
She works to identify special characteristics that help classify cancers into groups, such as cell types and genetic markers. This identification allows mesothelioma doctors to create individualized treatment plans based on each patient’s specific characteristics and gives them important information about prognosis.
Advocates for Mesothelioma in Women
Many women have devoted their lives and careers to advocating for patients with mesothelioma and their families. Although they are not doctors, these women provide vital support and services to people suffering from mesothelioma.
Linda’s journey as a mesothelioma advocate began when her husband was diagnosed with the disease in 2003. Just one year later in 2004, she co-founded the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), of which she is currently president and CEO.
Linda has acted as a congressional witness on multiple occasions and has presented hundreds of speeches in 20 countries. She uses her 40 years of organizing experience and her mastery of social media to bring together and give a voice to those affected by asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma.
Barbara McQueen (neé Minty) was a model in the 1970s and is the widow of actor Steve McQueen. They were married for just over three years before he died of mesothelioma.
Since 2012, Barbara has worked as a mesothelioma advocate and board member of ADAO. She also wrote a book about her life and marriage, including her experiences as Steve’s caregiver during the final six months of his life, called Steve McQueen — The Last Mile.
Mary is a nurse practitioner who has devoted 20 years of her career to treating patients with mesothelioma. She specializes in the creation and implementation of clinical trials and frequently publishes her work in peer-reviewed journals.
She currently works as the executive director of the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation where she uses her voice and experience to advocate for increased transparency. She has a strong focus on ethics in legal and medical matters surrounding mesothelioma.
Remembering Notable Women Who Lost Their Lives to Mesothelioma
While celebrating the women who are leading the fight against mesothelioma is important, it is also important to take the time to remember those whose battles have ended. Their lives and accomplishments have brought us forward to allow others to pick up the torch and continue lighting the way to a cure.
Five-time Grammy winner Donna Summer was widely regarded as the queen of disco. Her career spanned over four decades as she released and performed numerous hits.
She died in 2012 at the age of 63 after a long battle with pleural mesothelioma, which she attributed to breathing in the asbestos particles released into the air following the destruction of the Twin Towers during the 9/11 attacks.
Trisha Noble had a decades-long career as a pop star and actress. She had acting roles in film and TV, including a role in the Star Wars prequels where she played the mother of Padmé Amidala.
Noble died in 2021, only days before her 77th birthday. Her death was caused by complications from mesothelioma resulting from inhaled asbestos fibers.
Dame Ann Ebsworth was the first woman to be directly appointed to Queen Elizabeth II’s bench division of the high court in England in 1992.
Diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 2000, Ebswoth fought for two years before passing away surrounded by friends in 2002.
The Future of Mesothelioma in Women
Mesothelioma is a rare and dangerous cancer — but thanks to the tireless work of women in the mesothelioma field — mesothelioma outlooks are steadily improving. New treatment methods combined with new techniques for early detection continue to improve the prognosis for women with mesothelioma.
Researchers continue to study why women with mesothelioma experience increased survival rates and overall better prognoses. One ongoing study, The Gendered Experience of Mesothelioma Study (GEMS), is showing interesting preliminary results.
According to GEMS, women with mesothelioma trend younger than men. Youth improves prognosis and often allows patients to tolerate demanding treatments. Women are also more likely to be exposed through their environment, rather than through directly handling asbestos-containing products.
Other researchers are investigating how hormone differences in men and women could play a part in improved response to treatment and survival rate. Researchers are studying how hormones interact with medication and how they may affect tumor biology.
As our knowledge of mesothelioma deepens, it is clear that women in mesothelioma are doing vital work as leaders in the field. The work of doctors, survivors, and advocates paves the way to a better and brighter future for all patients.