Malignant Mesothelioma in Women
Women are less likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer than men, primarily because men are more likely to be exposed to large amounts of asbestos on the job.
However, women are still at risk of developing mesothelioma through secondhand asbestos exposure, encountering asbestos in older homes and school buildings, or using asbestos-contaminated talcum products.
About 78% of women diagnosed with mesothelioma have the pleural type, which starts in the lining of the lung, according to a 2020 Duke University study. Their average age at diagnosis is 65.
Based on a 2022 report in BMJ Open Respiratory Research, it takes about 2 months longer for women to get a mesothelioma diagnosis than men. This can greatly impact the wait time for them to start life-extending treatment.
In addition, women with mesothelioma differ from men because they:
- Are nearly three times more likely to have peritoneal mesothelioma (cancer of the abdominal lining)
- May have symptoms that can be mistaken for less serious health issues
- Live three times as long with their cancer
Doctors should be mindful of these differences when diagnosing female patients.
Get essential information on symptoms, diagnosis, and life expectancy in our Free Mesothelioma Guide.
What Are Mesothelioma Symptoms in Women?
Symptoms vary depending on the type (location) of mesothelioma. Learn more about the different mesothelioma symptoms in women below.
Pleural Mesothelioma Symptoms in Women
Pleural mesothelioma forms in the lung lining and is the most common type of mesothelioma.
Common pleural mesothelioma symptoms include:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Fluid around the lungs (pleural effusion)
- Persistent dry cough
Peritoneal Mesothelioma Symptoms in Women
Peritoneal mesothelioma is the second most common type of mesothelioma, but it is more common among women. It forms in the lining of the abdomen.
Common peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain
- Night sweats
- Weight loss
Some women with peritoneal mesothelioma have only experienced heavy menstrual bleeding, which can make it harder to determine when they should see a specialist.
Pericardial Mesothelioma Symptoms in Women
The rarest of the three types of mesothelioma, pericardial mesothelioma develops in the lining of the heart.
Symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma include:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Heart palpitations
- Irregular heartbeats and murmurs (arrhythmias)
Other symptoms may develop, such as fluid build-up (effusion) in the lining of the heart, lungs, or abdomen. In fact, one 35-year-old woman was treated for repeated effusions in multiple parts of her body for over a year before receiving a pericardial mesothelioma diagnosis, according to a 2023 article published in Radiology Case Reports.
Mesothelioma Diagnosis in Women
Mesothelioma doctors use the same methods to diagnose male and female patients.
The typical mesothelioma diagnosis process involves:
- Physical exam: During this step, you and your doctor will discuss your medical history and symptoms.
- Imaging scans and blood tests: Your doctor will order imaging tests like X-rays and computed tomography (CT) scans to check for visible mesothelioma tumors. Blood tests may also be done to check for mesothelioma biomarkers (indicators of disease).
- Biopsy: If your doctor sees anything abnormal in your scans, they will order a tissue or fluid biopsy to confirm whether you have mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis in Women
Some doctors may not consider the possibility of mesothelioma in women with no asbestos exposure. Because of this, women are more likely to be misdiagnosed with other less serious conditions when they present with common mesothelioma symptoms.
Pleural Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis
Women experiencing pleural mesothelioma symptoms may be misdiagnosed with:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Lung cancer
- Other chest infections
A case study published in Cureus detailed one 56-year-old woman with pleural mesothelioma who struggled to receive a diagnosis. Doctors initially thought her worsening cough was from asthma because she had no occupational exposure to asbestos.
When the woman visited the emergency room a month later, doctors ordered imaging scans and a biopsy and discovered she had a mass in the lining of her left lung.
Peritoneal Mesothelioma Misdiagnosis
Women experiencing peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms may be misdiagnosed with:
- Crohn’s disease
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Ovarian cancer
If your symptoms persist and you suspect you may have mesothelioma, seeing a specialist or asking for a second opinion can be a vital step toward receiving an accurate diagnosis.
Mesothelioma Treatment Options for Women
Mesothelioma treatment options are the same for male and female patients but will vary depending on the location, cell type, and stage of their cancer.
The main treatment options for mesothelioma include:
Research suggests that women may be better candidates for certain treatments than men. A Society of Thoracic Surgeons study found that women who received an extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP) for pleural mesothelioma responded better to the surgery than men and lived longer than 30 months.
Receiving mesothelioma treatment is crucial to improving life expectancy. Get our Free Mesothelioma Guide today to learn about your treatment options and resources for financial assistance.
Mesothelioma Survival Rates in Women
Many studies show that women survive longer with mesothelioma than men.
Women with mesothelioma have a 5-year survival rate of 13.4% — compared to 4.5% for men — according to a study in the Annals of Thoracic Surgery. This means that more than 13% of female mesothelioma patients live 5 years or longer.
Women’s higher 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 of this cancer and has higher 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 less severe and aggressive cases of mesothelioma.
- Higher estrogen levels: Results from the Society of Thoracic Surgeons study suggest that estrogen receptors may play a role in slowing the spread of epithelioid cancer tumors.
Many women with mesothelioma become long-term survivors, living 10 years and longer thanks to life-extending treatment.
How Does a Woman Get Mesothelioma?
Both men and women develop mesothelioma by inhaling or being exposed to asbestos fibers. Men are more likely to be exposed to asbestos while working in construction or manufacturing, but women may also be exposed to asbestos at work, at home, or secondhand through a spouse or family member.
Learn how women can be exposed to asbestos and develop mesothelioma below.
Household Exposure to Asbestos
Asbestos was used heavily in construction materials from the 1930s until the 1980s, and millions of American homes built during that time may still contain the dangerous mineral.
As asbestos-containing products break down or are disturbed during home renovation projects, they can release asbestos fibers into the air where they can be inhaled.
Between 1999 and 2020, nearly 23% of women who passed away from mesothelioma were homemakers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Secondhand Exposure to Asbestos
Secondhand asbestos exposure occurs when someone who works with asbestos brings home fibers on their work clothes. For example, someone who works in construction may carry asbestos fibers home on their clothing, which are then dispersed throughout their home.
Peritoneal mesothelioma survivor, Julie Gundlach was exposed to asbestos when her father, who worked as an electrician, brought home asbestos on his uniform.
The CDC states that the risk of mesothelioma is 10 times higher in women with family members who work around asbestos-containing products.
Occupational Exposure to Asbestos
Over the years, more women are entering blue-collar and military careers that are most commonly associated with occupational asbestos exposure. In addition, female teachers may be exposed while working in old school buildings — many of which still contain asbestos.
Talc-Based Products & Cosmetics Containing Asbestos
Talc is a natural mineral that has been used to manufacture talcum powder, cosmetics, baby powder, and other household products for more than 100 years. However, talc can sometimes contain traces of asbestos that can put people at risk of mesothelioma.
Women who use talc-based personal hygiene products daily may have been exposed to asbestos. These products have also been linked to ovarian cancer.
Environmental Exposure to Asbestos
Some states like Montana and California have large naturally occurring deposits of asbestos. Women who live near areas where the mineral was mined or manufactured may have been exposed to asbestos.
Get Help With Mesothelioma Diagnosis and Treatment
If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with mesothelioma or is seeking a second opinion after a misdiagnosis, Mesothelioma Hope is here to help.
We can help pinpoint when and where you may have been exposed to asbestos and connect you with financial aid resources. Additionally, our team of Patient Advocates and registered nurses can connect you with top mesothelioma doctors in your area.
FAQs About Mesothelioma in Women
Can women get mesothelioma?
Yes, it’s possible for women to get mesothelioma. While mesothelioma is more commonly diagnosed in men, women can also develop this cancer if they have been exposed to asbestos.
How does a woman get mesothelioma?
Women get mesothelioma from asbestos, just like men do. If women work directly around asbestos-containing materials or are exposed secondhand, they risk being exposed to the dangerous mineral.
When asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed, they remain in the body for decades, causing inflammation and damage to sensitive organs.
At what age does mesothelioma start?
The median age for mesothelioma to begin is 75 years old. Because this cancer has a long latency period, it can take 10-50 years before symptoms of mesothelioma begin to develop after asbestos exposure.
Women, however, may be diagnosed with mesothelioma at younger ages, sometimes as young as 30 years old.
Who is prone to mesothelioma?
People who spent years in a high-risk occupation, particularly construction workers and military service members, are more prone to developing mesothelioma later in life.
This is because their jobs exposed them to large quantities of asbestos nearly every day.