Mesothelioma in Women: A Sleeping Killer

WoMed was contacted by the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance about a guest blog post on mesothelioma. I understood mesothelioma to be a primarily male cancer outcome attributed to working in the asbestos and construction industries. However, the number of women diagnosed with mesothelioma is on the increase, as it the incidence of the disease generally.

Mesothelioma is recognized as a leading occupational cancer, but women who have historically not held jobs within these fields have had an increased risk of developing the disease through second-hand asbestos exposure. This typically occurs when a person who works near or around asbestos carries the microscopic fibers home on their hair, skin and clothing, thus unintentionally exposing those around them to the substance. This type of exposure happens more frequently with women and children, as they are the ones in decades past who were far more likely to launder, handle, and live in spaces with clothing containing asbestos. Second-hand exposure poses a significant danger to these women because they often don’t know they’ve been exposed to asbestos in the past to consider it as a risk factor. This lack of knowledge, combined with the cancer’s 10-50 year average latency period and vague symptoms, often leaves women unaware of the danger.

This was the case with Heather Von St. James, who is now a 12-year mesothelioma survivor and was exposed through the asbestos fibers unknowingly carried home by her father. As a child, she inhaled the fibers that were caked in the dust on his work coat that she wore while doing her daily chores outside. At the age of 36, Von St. James found herself facing a pleural mesothelioma diagnosis. Thankfully, her diagnosis came early enough for treatment, thanks to the urging and diligence of her primary care physician, who suggested the proper tests and scans necessary to find the underlying issue. When diagnosed, she was given just 15 months to live if she did nothing. It was, again, her primary care physician who was able to present her with her options, including the information of a specialist out of Boston. It was thanks to this referral that she was able to seek the experimental treatment that saved her life.

Similar to the onset in many cases of rare diseases, Heather’s symptoms were initially overlooked and attributed to something else more common and routine. In her case, her anemia, exhaustion, weight loss and shortness of breath were all thought of as postpartum recovery, since her diagnosis came less than four months after giving birth to her daughter. It was Heather’s close relationship with her primary care physician who reviewed her progress and monitored her response to novel solutions like iron supplements, rest and diet, but then quickly pushed for more answers. Although it’s not always easy to coordinate and schedule, expedient action and recognizing the signs of underlying illness can be crucial for those with rare diseases, especially cancer, to hopefully ensure earlier diagnosis and more time for potential treatment.

People with rare cancers and diseases understand how important a positive relationship with quality primary care practitioners is while trying to find a proper diagnosis. For women in particular, taking into account all the life changes and their inherent needs, the role of primary care physicians in particular can be crucial. Not only do these practitioners provide quality care as needed, but they’re often the first line in recognizing signs and symptoms of deeper issues when patients might need additional attention. This dynamic can be especially important, both in helping cancer prevention efforts through screenings and check-ups, and in knowing what tests would be the most valuable, and managing care while trying to find a diagnosis.

For women facing rare diseases and cancers that are often misunderstood, or for which they are outside the common demographic, this trusted, often close relationship between primary care providers and their patients can be very beneficial. Mesothelioma cancer is largely thought of as a disease only older men develop. While men do overwhelmingly present with more diagnoses, rates in men have been decreasing slightly while women have had steady rates of incidence in recent years. With such a small percentage of the population and only around 3,000 affected in the United States annually, an uptick in the past decade or so of women under 50 being diagnosed has stuck out as a new trend.

Due to the low rates of incidence, small increases in this particular demographic are seemingly statistically neutral, however in practice this information can be invaluable. When dealing with rare or aggressive types of cancer, early detection is crucial for patients to have time and access to treatment. This is especially true for those with mesothelioma, because the average life expectancy is a mere 12-21 months. Being cognizant of the fact that rare diseases can strike populations that have been thought of as exempt or outliers can also help increase the efficiency of diagnosis. This is significant particularly with women under 50, as research has shown their younger age, combined with the finding that between the genders women tend to respond better to treatment, this demographic has an increased survival rate against the average.

No one should face mesothelioma cancer alone. Visit the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance to connect with patient advocate Heather Von St. James and find resources, support and community.

Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance


Additional resources:

Canadian Mesothelioma Society  -

Asbestos-caused Diseases Increasing in Canada, and Many Victims are Women -