The incidence of mesothelioma in men is significantly higher than in women. This is likely because workplace exposure to asbestos decades ago is the leading cause of this type of cancer. However, women do get mesothelioma, and studying the cancer in this population is important. They may have different underlying causes, varying symptoms, and even respond differently to treatment.
Now, the largest study ever conducted with women and mesothelioma has been completed and is shining light on the cancer in this group. The details will help improve prevention, diagnosis, and treatment for women.
Researchers at Duke University Medical Center investigated the pathology, diagnosis, survival rates, asbestos exposure, biological markers, and demographics of over 300 women with mesothelioma. The study was published in December 2019 in the American Journal of Surgical Pathology. The paper publishes the final results of an ongoing study, the first and most extensive of its kind exploring this rare type of cancer in women.
Household Contact with Asbestos
Asbestos, the mineral now highly regulated but once used in a number of industries, is the leading cause of mesothelioma. The fibers of the mineral, when inhaled or ingested, cause tissue damage that can trigger cancer growth in the body’s mesothelium, a thin, double tissue layer. Most commonly, the cancer develops around the lungs because of accidental inhalation of asbestos fibers.
The recent study found that more than half of the women in the study did have asbestos exposure in their pasts. While most men with mesothelioma were exposed on the job, women were most often exposed in the home. Often, the exposure resulted from contact with a family member or their clothing. If a man in the household worked around asbestos, he may have carried the fibers home and caused exposure in family members.
Workplace Exposure and Markers
The study found that some women experienced exposure on the job, just like most men. Those who did had similar markers of the disease as men with mesothelioma. Among the 354 cases studied, 40 included women with industrial jobs that caused exposure.
Markers for mesothelioma and asbestos exposure include pleural plaques, signs of damage on the pleural tissue around the lungs, as well as certain proteins in the blood. Most of the women who showed markers for the disease had pleural mesothelioma.
Peritoneal Mesothelioma by Age
One unexpected finding in the study was a significant age difference between women diagnosed with peritoneal versus pleural mesothelioma. Peritoneal mesothelioma is the second most common type of this cancer and forms in the tissue around abdominal organs.
The average age of diagnosis for pleural mesothelioma among these women was 62.1 years. For peritoneal it was nearly a decade earlier at 52.8 years. The women with peritoneal mesothelioma also had better life expectancies and survival times.
This study is important because women have long been left out of research for mesothelioma. Because it is more common in men, studies have focused on them and on workplace exposure. This and further study of women with mesothelioma should help doctors and other researchers come up with better treatments to help female patients live longer.
- Pavlisko, E.N., Beiyu, L., Green, C., Sporn, T.A., and Roggli, V.L. (2020, March). Malignant Diffuse Mesothelioma in Women. American Journal of Surgical Pathology. 44(3), 293-304.
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