Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer, the most common cause of which is exposure to asbestos. Because asbestos has been used as insulation and as a component of many construction and manufacturing materials, exposure to it tends to occur occupationally. Those who are most likely to work around asbestos, and therefore most at risk to contract asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma, are plumbers, boilermakers, joiners, pipefitters, electricians, shipyard workers, steelworkers, forgemen and construction workers.
These occupations have traditionally been male-dominated, which means that until recently, most cases of mesothelioma were diagnosed in men. The rate of mesothelioma diagnoses in women has been steadily increasing, however, and medical experts now believe that secondhand exposure to mesothelioma may be to blame.
Asbestos, when it is broken down, gives off a dust that can cling to fibers such as fabrics, hair and automotive upholstery. It can therefore contaminate clothing or be transported offsite even when the worker’s job is complete. This means that women who are married to asbestos workers may come into contact with the carcinogen in their home. There have been reports of women who laundered their husband’s contaminated work uniforms or overalls, or who gave their husbands a welcome-home hug before he had a change to change out of the dusty clothes, and who developed mesothelioma as a result.
Today there are safety precautions in place, and regulations require the use of protective clothing to avoid the transport of asbestos particulate away from a job site. Yet because mesothelioma has a long latency period between the time exposure begins and the time the disease shows up, many women being diagnosed today were exposed to asbestos before those regulations were in place—years or even decades ago.
Once mesothelioma is diagnosed, the patient has a life expectancy of only a few months, on average. Fewer than 10 percent of patients live past the two-year mark.
Mesothelioma is diagnosed in 3,000 new patients in the United States each year. Not only is that number expected to rise, but the number of women diagnosed with mesothelioma is also expected to rise. Anyone who has been exposed to asbestos—whether on the job, or on a secondhand basis—is encouraged to consult with his or her physician in order to begin the screening process of mesothelioma.