The demographic of mesothelioma patients has changed in recent years. Mesothelioma, a rare and deadly cancer infecting the lining of the lungs and chest cavity, is diagnosed in about 3,000 people in the United States each year. For many years, that vast majority of mesothelioma patients have been older men. Although most mesothelioma patients still fit this description, a recent report from Clinical Lung Cancer shows that the ratio of men to women has been shifting for the past few decades.
Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral used in construction materials and consumer products. Asbestos is heavily regulated now because of its cancer-causing properties, but until the 1970s, it was extremely prevalent. Asbestos is durable, versatile, and heat- and flame-resistant, making it an ideal additive in numerous products.
When asbestos is disturbed, its fibers can break apart and become airborne, where they can be inhaled or ingested. The soft microscopic fibers get lodged in the chest cavity and stay there for decades; the fibers cannot be expelled from the body, and when the immune system tries to fight them, the surrounding tissue gets damaged. It can take 20 to 50 years for mesothelioma to develop after the initial asbestos exposure, so it is common for patients to be diagnosed later in life.
Many victims encounter asbestos in the workplace, particularly those working blue-collar jobs. There are some industries that are more prone to asbestos exposure, including construction, automotive and aviation, plumbing, maritime, military, chemical processing, mining, and other businesses. For much of the twentieth century, these fields were male dominated, putting men at higher risk of workplace exposure. Until the dangers of asbestos were firmly established, there were few safety precautions in place to protect these workers, making the risk of developing mesothelioma even greater.
How Are Women Exposed to Asbestos?
From 1991 to 1999, women accounted for only 11.6 percent of mesothelioma diagnoses, with an average age of 75 years among those patients. Based on the long latency period, these cases include patients who were exposed before there were strict safety standards in place. Although it was mostly men who were exposed in the workplace during this time, they could carry asbestos fibers home with them on their clothes and tools, in their cars, and even in their hair. Workers’ families then encountered the asbestos through secondary exposure, as the asbestos fibers were spread throughout the home. Even washing clothes with asbestos on them can spread the fibers to other laundry, rather than eliminating them. About half of mesothelioma diagnoses among women are attributed to secondary exposure.
Twenty years later, the percentage of women among patients diagnosed with mesothelioma between 2010 and 2019 has almost doubled, increasing to 20.5 percent. This is a much sharper increase than the rate of men diagnosed with mesothelioma, which increased by about 51 percent over the same period. The average age of these patients at the time of their diagnosis was 66; women overall tend to develop the disease younger than men. The rate of women dying of the disease has also increased by about 20 percent over the past 10 years, whereas the rate of men dying has remained mostly consistent.
Circumstances around asbestos exposure have changed dramatically, and there are several factors that might contribute to this increase. More women have entered the workforce, including in industrial jobs that have a higher asbestos risk, but workplace safety standards have been updated to protect many workers from known asbestos risks.
There may be other ways that workers can be exposed, even if their industry is not considered high risk. Although asbestos is no longer used in most building materials, there are plenty of older buildings constructed before the 1970s that still contain asbestos products, which can include drywall, insulation, floor and ceiling tiles, paints, cement, adhesives, and other materials. Renovation, demolition, or even normal wear and tear can damage these elements and cause asbestos particles to become airborne. Buildings such as schools, retail spaces, office buildings, hospitals, and even homes can have hidden asbestos hazards, putting more professions at risk, including fields that are more traditionally female dominated.
Asbestos has not been completely banned and is still found in a number of personal care products, though not always intentionally. Asbestos is mined, and deposits of asbestos often occur near deposits of talc, another naturally occurring mineral. Talc is used to make talcum powder and other cosmetics, including blush and eyeliner. These products may contain talc that is contaminated with asbestos, putting the people that use them at risk for asbestos exposure. Many women use these products as part of their daily care routine, and the repeated exposure can result in a cancer diagnosis.
Diagnosing Mesothelioma in Women
The increase in cases among women may be partially attributed to a better understanding of how mesothelioma affects women. It was long understood that men were more vulnerable to mesothelioma as a result of the higher risk of direct exposure in the workplace. Women who were suffering from the disease had more difficulty getting an accurate diagnosis, which also prevented them from getting the correct treatment. Common symptoms of mesothelioma include persistent cough, chest pain, and bowel discomfort, which can easily be mistaken for a number of other conditions. Recognizing that women are just as vulnerable as men, as well as improvements in diagnostic procedures, has made it easier for women to get the right diagnosis, but it may have also contributed to the increase in documented cases.
Women currently make up about one-fifth of total mesothelioma cases, but the percentage of women patients is about double when you consider only peritoneal mesothelioma diagnoses. Peritoneal mesothelioma is the second most common form of the disease, behind pleural mesothelioma, infecting the lining of the stomach and abdominal cavity rather than the lungs. About 40 percent of peritoneal mesothelioma cases are diagnosed in women.
Mesothelioma Survival Rates Lengthening
Recent data on mesothelioma patients has revealed some other interesting trends in these diagnoses. Although the average age of women diagnosed with mesothelioma has decreased since the 1990s, the overall average age of mesothelioma patients has increased, from 65.8 years in the 1990s to 75 years in the 2010s. Mesothelioma survival rates remain low, but they are steadily increasing. Patients survived for an average of nine months in the 1990s, which had increased to 9.3 months by the year 2000. Now, patient survival has reached an average rate of 10.1 months, though some studies put the current rate higher at 12 or even 14 months.
Increased survival rates are good news for patients, who have a short life expectancy once diagnosed. This is attributed to improvements in how mesothelioma is treated; more mesothelioma patients are being treated with chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery, if they are eligible. There have been significant developments in other treatment methods such as immunotherapy that are helping to improve patient outcomes and may contribute to future increases in survival rates. According to a recent study by Duke University researchers, women may respond to treatment more successfully overall, as they are more often diagnosed with the epithelioid subtype of the disease that is easier to treat.
Philadelphia Mesothelioma Lawyers at Shein Law Advocate for Women Diagnosed with Mesothelioma
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma or other asbestos-related disease, the Philadelphia mesothelioma lawyers at Shein Law are here to help. We have the knowledge, experience, and resources to determine who is at fault for your asbestos exposure and hold them accountable for their negligence. We are committed to getting you the compensation for which you are entitled so that you can focus on your treatment and recovery. Call us at 877-743-4652 or contact us online to discuss your case. With offices in Philadelphia and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we proudly serve clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey.