For decades, asbestos-caused cancer was considered a man’s disease. Indeed, the average mesothelioma sufferer was – and still is – male, usually with a median age of around 65. That’s because most of those affected by the disease had labored in jobs that were typically for men, including at steel mills, refineries, power plants, and other places where tasks demanded lots of strength and tenacity.
However, lurking somewhere in the background, there’s always been a group of women touched by the disease, and it isn’t until recently that the plight of these women has been thrust into the public eye.
Indeed, many countries are making sure that everyone knows that mesothelioma can develop in women as well, and these same countries want equal care and attention for these women.
Many women are often victims of “secondary” exposure, having inhaled asbestos fibers from dust brought home on the clothes of their husband, father, brother, or other family member.
However, that’s not always the case. Some exposure is direct – a result of women working in an asbestos-laden environment.
In Scotland, a group known as the Clydesdale Action on Asbestos is holding special events to bring attention to the plight of women with this aggressive form of cancer and many are coming forward to admit that their diagnoses were quite a surprise.
They say women are the “forgotten victims.”
Jane Capaldi, 64, of Ayrshire, Scotland was diagnosed with mesothelioma about two-and-a-half years ago after struggling with a quiet but persistent cough.
“The doctors told me I must have contracted mesothelioma after washing my husband’s work clothes,” said the grandmother of three. “But the timing was out by years – my husband didn’t work in heavy industry when we married.”
Instead, Capaldi realized that the exposure was likely from a factory in which she had worked many years ago, though she was a secretary, not a laborer.
“I had worked in the old Coats factory in Paisley in the offices – and we would often pass through the factory area,” she explained. “You would see open pipes and surfaces covered in dust. You had no idea – no-one really knew of the risks and no-one told you there might be a problem.”
A fellow victim, May Carroll, agreed with Capaldi.
“I trained as a cashier bookkeeper and worked for companies in Glasgow. In the first place we worked in an enclosed office known as the dunny,” she explained. “I became an office supervisor and, in all the places I worked, you’d pass through distribution warehouses and the factory shop floor”
“Asbestos was known as this great substance which was fireproof. We had no idea of any risks,” Carroll told the press.
Similar situations played out in the U.S., where scores of women worked in the offices of factories where asbestos was prevalent. Just a short trip into the busy, dusty, often poorly-ventilated work area could have resulted in their exposure to toxic asbestos.
Each year in the United States, about 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are identified. About 750 of those cases are among women, according to the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) database, which has been tracking the disease for the last 40 years.
Yet, we hear little about that and many women are misdiagnosed because doctors often don’t make the connection between females and asbestos exposure.