Nearly 1 in 10 Americans will suffer from a rare disease in the United States. With over 7,000 different rare diseases it’s possible that you’ve come across someone already today who is battling one. Mesothelioma cancer has historically been more common in men, but women can still develop this rare cancer through exposure to asbestos. Recent studies have proven that women have been exposed to cancer-causing asbestos through both firsthand and secondhand sources.
What is Mesothelioma Cancer?
Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that can develop in different places in the body, including the abdomen and heart. But most commonly it occurs in the lining of the lungs. There is no known cure and about 20 million people face the risk of developing mesothelioma through exposure to asbestos.
Nearly 3,000 people receive a mesothelioma diagnosis each year in the U.S. Unlike other types of cancer, such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and melanoma, which can be carried in a gene and passed on through the family, mesothelioma is only contracted through exposure to asbestos.
Asbestos is a set of six dangerous carcinogenic fibers that are naturally-occurring. It is well known for its resistance to heat and chemicals.
After asbestos enters the body, symptoms of mesothelioma can take anywhere from 20 to 50 years to surface. This typically puts mesothelioma patients in the 55 and over age group. This type of cancer often has an initial misdiagnosis because of how common its symptoms are, such as chest pain, constantly coughing, and fatigue. After diagnosis, the typical life expectancy for patients is anywhere between 12 to 21 months. Female patients typically have a longer life expectancy than men at about 5.5 months longer.
Women and Mesothelioma
Men are five times more likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma than women. So, in the past, research was male-centered. According to Journal Chest, women are twice as likely to develop peritoneal mesothelioma, which develops in the thin lining of the abdomen. Due to the cancer’s rareness, there should be more emphasis on understanding its effects on women. As the medical community continues to learn more about the rare disease, it remains clear that early detection can significantly improve patient outcomes.
Exposure to Asbestos
Firsthand exposure to asbestos causes a small percentage of the mesothelioma cases in women. In the early 20th century, the women who worked during wartime either in the military or in positions vacated by men who served were at a higher risk of mesothelioma.
This infographic from Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance shows the differences between then and now:
While first-hand exposure is possible for women, most often they experience secondhand exposure. Many industries commonly used asbestos during the 20th century. Jobs like construction, firefighting, factory work, and the military have all involved some sort of contact with asbestos.
At the time these jobs usually employed more men than women. Today there’s a much smaller gender gap. Women are becoming first responders, firefighters, and police officers. Unfortunately, these heroic careers still often put people at risk of asbestos exposure.
Secondhand exposure to asbestos is a common concern because the fibers easily stay on clothes and furniture. After work, men would come home to their families, unknowing putting them at risk for asbestos-related diseases. With debris left on their hair, skin, and clothing, exposure could happen from anything as simple as physical touch to when they greeted each other.
There is no safe level of asbestos exposure. So, shaking out clothing, folding it, or vacuuming couches and rugs are all potential sources of exposure to asbestos for many women. And these females must now deal with the rare disease.
What is Mesothelioma Awareness Day?
September 26 is a day to remember those people who have bravely fought but lost their battle with mesothelioma cancer. It is a day to show support for those who continue to fight this rare disease too. And it is a time to show their families and loved ones that we stand together in hopes to one day find a cure.
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