Posted by on April 16, 2013 - 10:27am

Women are much less likely than men to be diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer – an approximate four-to-one ratio – but there is little to suggest a gender-based defense or susceptibility. The discrepancy centers more on blue-collar occupations and workplaces that have been dominated traditionally by males.

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral that played a major role in the building of America throughout much the 20th century. Although the use of asbestos has dropped dramatically in recent decades – by comparison very little is actually used in America today – the risk of exposure lingers from all that remains in the buildings and the products left behind.

There also is the lengthy latency period (10 to 60 years) between exposure to asbestos and symptoms that can be diagnosed. An estimated 3,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed annually in the United States. The average life expectancy for a patient is only one year, but of course this can fluctuate because of a patient’s age, race, gender and a number of other demographics.

“People still are getting sick from being exposed to asbestos,” said Ken Rosenmen, M.D. Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine chief at Michigan State University. “Asbestos was once a useful product – and that’s why it was used so much – but we’re still paying the price for that.”

Michigan State University has been tracking mesothelioma cases throughout the state since 1985, reporting that only 25 percent of the cases involved women, which is comparable to trends throughout the country. The United States Centers of Disease Control (CDC) tracked 18,083 mesothelioma deaths during a recent six-year period and found that 19 percent (3,485) of cases occurred in women.

One study from Turkey determined that 160 women and only 115 men – from a pool of 100,000 exposed people – were at risk for mesothelioma cancer.

More definitive, though, is the type of mesothelioma that varied from men to women.  Among the men, 90.2 percent of cases were pleural mesothelioma (forming in the lungs), 8.3 percent were peritoneal mesothelioma (abdomen), and 1.1 percent was from other regions. Among the women, 71.1 percent of cases were pleural, 24.3 percent were peritoneal, and 3.1 percent were from other regions.

Mesothelioma for both men and women is generally difficult and slow to diagnose because symptoms often mirror those of less serious illnesses. Although millions of people year after year are exposed to asbestos in either the home or the workplace, only a small percentage develops mesothelioma.

There are stories about mesothelioma survivors, both men and women, with either pleural or peritoneal mesothelioma on the Wall of Hope section at Regardless of sex, both men and women can survive much longer with mesothelioma cancer than in the past thanks to innovative treatments.

Guest Author Tim Povtak has been a writer for since 2011. Prior to joining, he was an award-winning newspaper journalist.


Posted by on December 6, 2012 - 4:25pm

Mesothelioma is typically regarded as a men’s cancer.  The primary cause – occupational asbestos exposure – was the biggest threat in male-dominated industries, such as mining, construction and factory work. During the early and mid-20th century, when asbestos was most heavily used by manufacturers, women made up only a small percentage of the workforce.  However, female patients continue to come forward, sharing their stories of how they ended up with this aggressive disease.

Women and Asbestos Exposure
For women, asbestos exposure was more likely to come from a secondhand or environmental source.   Secondhand asbestos exposure includes contact with the skin, hair or work clothing of another asbestos-exposure individual. Many female mesothelioma patients recall hugging their parents after they worked with asbestos or washing their spouses’ asbestos-contaminated clothing.

Other female mesothelioma patients attribute their disease to environmental asbestos exposure. In towns with thriving asbestos mines, the fibers often contaminated the air and soil throughout the community. Women may have purchased asbestos-laden gardening soil or taken their children to play in parks where the fibers were present in the dirt.

In one study, these various types of environmental exposure led to a much higher risk for mesothelioma in women; females had a relative risk of 159.9 per 100,000, while men had a relative risk of 114.8 per 100,000.

Although they were less likely to handle asbestos products in the workplace, women did face exposure risks from certain household products. Until the 1980s, items such as talcum powder and hairdryers contained asbestos fibers. Regular use may have led them to develop illness several decades down the road.

Like men, women typically develop asbestos-related diseases 20 to 50 years after they were exposed. However, some studies suggest that women have a better long-term survival with mesothelioma. As a result, some medical professionals recognize female gender (along with younger age and early cancer stage) as a positive prognostic factor for the disease.

Author bio: Faith Franz has spent nearly two years researching and writing for The Mesothelioma Center.   Check out our up-to-date tweets about mesothelioma cancer here

Smith, D. (2002). Women and Mesothelioma. Chest; 122 (6).

Wolf, A. S., Richards, W. G., Tilleman, T., R., Chirieac, L., Hurwitz, S., Bueno, R. and Sugarbaker, D. (2010). Characteristics of Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma in Women. Annals of Thoracic Surgery; 90.