Malignant Mesothelioma in Women
Women are far less likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma than men.
According to a 2014 study, of all recorded malignant pleural mesothelioma diagnoses from 1973-2009, 22% of the patients were women.
Women are less likely to work in occupations with a high risk of exposure to asbestos — a mineral that is the only proven cause of mesothelioma. This was especially true between the 1950s-1970s when asbestos use in the United States was at its highest.
In addition, women with mesothelioma differ from men because they:
- Have a higher likelihood of developing peritoneal mesothelioma
- Are more prone to certain symptoms
- Have higher long term survival rates
Doctors are still trying to determine the reasons for these differences, but some findings may lead to promising treatments for all mesothelioma patients.
What Are Mesothelioma Symptoms in Women?
Female mesothelioma patients generally express the same symptoms as male patients.
Common mesothelioma symptoms include:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Weight loss
However, mesothelioma symptoms in women are more likely to involve a cough or chest pain. This may be linked to the fact that women typically have smaller lungs and other organs than men, which means cancer can spread more quickly.
Mesothelioma Diagnosis in Women
Mesothelioma can be notoriously difficult to diagnose in any patient.
It takes between 20-50 years for symptoms to appear after asbestos exposure. In addition, the early symptoms of mesothelioma — such as coughing and chest pain — are common in many other ailments.
To make a mesothelioma diagnosis, doctors use the same methods for male and female patients. However, women with mesothelioma do experience some differences, both in terms of survival rate and misdiagnosis.
Mesothelioma Survival Rates in Men vs Women
Many studies show that women experience better long-term survival of mesothelioma than men — often regardless of treatment type.
In a 2010 study by the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, researchers found several predictors of a shorter survival rate among malignant pleural mesothelioma patients.
Indicators of a shorter survival rate included:
- Age: Older patients had a shorter survival rate.
- Cancer stage: Patients with more advanced cancer did not live as long.
- Sex: Male patients had lower survival rates.
However, in the case of mesothelioma patients with non-epithelial cancer cells, the survival rate advantage in female patients disappeared.
Women’s longer survival rates may be due to:
- A younger average age at diagnosis: Younger patients are less likely to have other health issues and are better able to handle aggressive mesothelioma treatments.
- Higher rates of peritoneal mesothelioma: Peritoneal mesothelioma is the least aggressive type, with longer average survival rates.
- Lower exposure to asbestos: Female patients tend to have fewer asbestos fibers in their bodies than men. This lower fiber count may be linked to the less aggressive epithelial cancer cell type.
- Higher estrogen levels: Findings from the Society of Thoracic Surgeons study suggest that estrogen receptors may play a role in slowing the spread of epithelial cancer tumors.
Researchers are hoping that the potential link between estrogen and survival rates leads to more effective treatments in the future.
Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis in Women
Mesothelioma can easily be misdiagnosed by doctors because its symptoms are nonspecific, and few medical professionals have experience with it.
Unfortunately, women may be especially prone to a mesothelioma misdiagnosis. This is because the disease is usually seen in men. Faced with vague symptoms, many doctors may not even think to consider mesothelioma as a possible diagnosis for a female patient.
In addition, women are overrepresented among peritoneal mesothelioma patients. Peritoneal mesothelioma causes symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, and bloating — easily dismissed as menstrual problems.
Mesothelioma Treatment Options for Women
Mesothelioma treatment options are the same for male and female patients.
The main treatment options for mesothelioma are:
However, the Society of Thoracic Surgeons study showed that when treated with an extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP), women fared even better than men. The mortality rate for women was just 1.8% in women compared with 6.3% in men (with epithelial cells).
This higher survival rate may be at least partially due to the fact that women are diagnosed at a younger age than men and, therefore, are more capable of withstanding rigorous surgeries.
Women and Asbestos Exposure
Currently, there is no proven way to get mesothelioma without asbestos exposure. And men are far more likely to be directly exposed to asbestos than women.
When asbestos use in the United States was at its height in the 1950s-1970s, women were barred from many of the occupations with the highest exposure risks.
Such occupations include:
- Construction workers
- Auto mechanics
- Military service members
Even today, men represent 98% of the construction workforce, where 70-80% of asbestos consumption is currently attributed.
However, many women still suffer from the devastating effects of asbestos exposure.
Women are most commonly exposed to asbestos in 3 ways:
- Workplace exposure: While women are still underrepresented in the blue-collar and military careers most commonly associated with occupational asbestos exposure, an increasing number are entering these fields. In addition, teachers may be exposed from working in old school buildings — many of which still contain asbestos.
- Secondary asbestos exposure: Women were commonly exposed to asbestos through secondary contact. When men working jobs that exposed them to asbestos came home, they carried the fibers with them on their clothes and hair. Women who washed asbestos-contaminated clothes were especially vulnerable.
- Environmental exposure: Women may also be exposed to asbestos through the environment. Certain areas in the United States such as parts of Montana and California contain natural deposits of the mineral. Exposure risk was especially high in areas where asbestos was mined or manufactured.
While the threat of asbestos exposure has been greatly reduced since the 1980s, women and men exposed in the past will continue to develop mesothelioma. And as greater numbers of women enter higher-risk fields like construction, more may be exposed to asbestos.
Researchers have noticed female patients’ remarkable resilience to this disease. Hopefully, further research on mesothelioma in women will lead to treatments that help all mesothelioma patients live longer, healthier lives.