The typical mesothelioma patient is male, but women can and do get this form of cancer. Asbestos exposure on the job is less common for women, although there are documented cases of women coming into heavy contact with asbestos fibers from their husbands’ work clothes. Home asbestos exposure poses just as much as risk to women as to men. Regardless of the etiology of any case, both doctors and patients need to be sure to avoid ruling out a mesothelioma diagnosis just because the patient is female.
Mesothelioma and Gender
Statistics show that more men than women are diagnosed with mesothelioma. This is probably a result of work patterns: more men than women work in asbestos-contaminated environments. Some of these include manufacturing, auto repair, shipyard, railroad, construction, farming, and textile production. There have been studies that show an increasing risk for women over the past couple of decades. Researchers believe this may be the result of second-hand exposure to asbestos. Many women come in contact with asbestos fibers when handling and washing family members’ clothing that is contaminated.
Higher Incidence Risk of Mesothelioma in Women
According to an article titled, Women and Mesothelioma, posted on the American College of Chest Physicians CHEST website, studies show that in some cases the risk of malignant pleural mesothelioma is greater for women than men. The numbers of women reported at risk were approximately 160 out of 100,000 versus approximately 115 men out of 100,000. Studies also indicate that demographics may play a factor when it comes to higher diagnoses of mesothelioma in women, as some parts of the world have shown higher incidence in women than others.
Other factors that may contribute to higher mesothelioma risk in women include the way in which asbestos fibers are deposited into the body and the size of the body. Fibers enter the body through the nose and mouth and the fiber deposition rate may vary based on whether or not the breaths taken are shallow or deep. Men tend to be taller than women, with bigger lungs and longer tracheas as compared to shorter women. When exposed to the same levels of asbestos particles, the effects may be more severe in a smaller person because the concentrations of the particles are higher due to the difference in lung and/or body volume. This could explain why there is an increasing mesothelioma risk in women and is an area of research that is up for further study.
Incidence Studies of Mesothelioma in Women vs. Men
According to an article titled, Malignant Mesothelioma in Women, in the journal Thorax previous reports have indicated that incidence of malignant mesothelioma in women was two to ten times less than men in cases where asbestos exposure was present; however, in cases where asbestos exposure was little or non-existent, incidence levels were equal.
Additionally, the article reported malignant mesothelioma statistics for occupational asbestos exposure in Quebec, where incidence in women is approximately 5 percent as compared to 40 percent in men. Incidence in women in Norway is approximately 17 percent as compared to 82 percent in men.
The static rate of incidence of malignant mesothelioma in women as compared to the rising incidence in men for cases relative to the asbestos industry, suggest that a considerable amount of tumors in women are not related to asbestos exposure.
Other studies showed that malignant mesothelioma of the peritoneum is greater in women with a range from 15 percent as compared to 7 percent in men in a study of 4,170 cases to 39 percent in North American women as compared to 22 percent in men. A United Kingdom study of 246 cases showed almost no difference between women and men; however, in cases of pleural tumors, a greater number of women (76 percent) were at greater risk than men (37 percent). Additionally, a study in Canada also showed women at greater risk of pleural tumors than men with women at 59 percent and men at 39 percent.
Other research found that the attributable risk for men with pleural mesothelioma for asbestos exposure was 88 percent, and 58 percent for men with peritoneal cancer; however for women, the attributable risk was 23 percent for both of these cancers combined. The research explains that the significant differences in attributable risk may be partly due to misclassification and misdiagnosis of these cancers among women.
Peritoneal mesothelioma in women is easily misdiagnosed because this cancer and ovarian cancer come from the same tissue. Pathologists sometimes have a hard time histologically distinguishing between the mesothelial tissue of the peritoneum and ovary tissues, which can lead to misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis. Indeed, “peritoneal cancer” usually refers to a gynecologic cancer the develops on the peritoneum, while peritoneal mesothelioma refers to cancer that starts in the mesothelium inside the peritoneal cavity. The difference is subtle and can require close study to make an accurate diagnosis.