The incidence of lung cancer among women and non-smokers is rising. Researchers cannot attest for sure as to why. Gender-based roles and the history of occupational asbestos exposure may be relevant in this situation.  

Lung cancer, the leading cancer killer, causes approximately 171 deaths per day in women in the United States. Each year, it causes more deaths than breast, ovarian and uterine cancers combined. 

In its early stages, lung cancer is curable with surgery. But unfortunately, many women receive lung cancer diagnoses long after symptoms develop, and the disease is often advanced and resistant to treatment. 

Generally, cancer develops when the normal processes keeping women healthy and alive by producing new healthy cells go wrong. Aside from smoking, other factors, such as exposure to toxic substances, can increase a person’s chances of getting lung cancer. For example, asbestos can damage the DNA in cells; thus, causing a cancerous malfunction.  

Estimating the number of women that died from lung cancer due to asbestos exposure is problematic. Death certificates do not indicate if the person that died of lung cancer suffered any asbestos exposure.  

In a study published in 2012, scientists at the International Agency for Research on Cancer suggest that there are 3.2 to 4 lung cancer deaths for every mesothelioma death. If we were to apply this percentage to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mortality data for malignant mesothelioma for 2005–2014, this would lead to an estimated number of 18,128 to 22,660 women that died of lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure over the course of nine years. This is, of course, a pure estimate due to a lack of sufficient data.  

For many women, asbestos exposure happened when they came into contact with the mineral due to their partners or family members with blue-collar occupations, who inadvertently brought it home on their clothes, shoes, or tools. 

Until the 1980s, asbestos was the preferred material for manufacturing products and construction. Because of their fire-resistant properties and versatility, asbestos fibers were woven into fabric and added to insulation, drywall, and floor tile adhesives. The military also used the mineral extensively.  

Exposure to asbestos in any amount can cause serious health effects. That is why secondary asbestos exposure is just as dangerous as primary exposure in the workplace. When it’s repeated long-term, secondary asbestos exposure causes the same diseases as direct exposure, including lung cancer. 

Today, asbestos exposure, including secondary exposure, is much less common than even 20 years ago. However, there is a latency period of 15 to 35 years between exposure and the development of an asbestos-related disease. That is why today, women still face the effects of secondhand exposure suffered when asbestos use was high.  

Secondary asbestos exposure is more common among women than men. Before the 1970s, when the government enacted strict regulations, it was common for women to come into contact with asbestos from family members who unknowingly brought the mineral home. 

At that time, the majority of industrial workers were men. Moreover, many industries and occupations often required them to work with asbestos-containing products. As a result, workers indirectly exposed their families and others living with them to asbestos when they returned home, carrying fibers on their hair, skin, and clothes. 

It’s only since the 1970s that laws and regulations require employers to provide workers with facilities to change out of contaminated clothing before going home. Laws and regulations also currently direct employers to offer shower facilities. Thus, women were exposed to asbestos as their family members could not wash asbestos off their skin and hair before going home.  

Today, employers also have to use special laundering services to clean contaminated work clothes for proper reuse. In the mid-20th century, such services were not available. 

Despite the media attention paid to asbestos-related risks, many women might have missed the reality and dangers of secondary exposure. Therefore, they may have a false sense of safety about lung cancer. In addition, non-smoking women see lung cancer as unlikely; even when their symptoms are typical, they tend not to spot them early enough, so they get diagnosed when their cancer is at an advanced stage. 

That makes it much more challenging to treat. For example, within a year of diagnosis, only 14% of lung cancer patients whose disease was already at an advanced stage will still be alive, compared with 70% of patients who receive an early diagnosis. 

After being diagnosed, the stigma of lung cancer can also be challenging. Due to the general assumption that people with lung cancer are smokers, non-smokers also suffer from the stigma that they caused their disease. 

That stigma also means lung cancer receives only a tiny share of the billions of dollars plowed into researching cancer. That is why not many women want to come out and say: I’m a lung cancer patient. But, with breast and other cancers, women say it more freely. 

Women can win the fight against cancer. Access to more general information about secondary asbestos exposure, less stigma, and more resources dedicated to researching lung cancer can lead to life-saving interventions. 

About the Author 

Miguel Leyva  

Miguel Leyva is a case manager at Atraxia Law. In this role, he offers support to women injured by exposure to toxic substances such as asbestos. Miguel helps women diagnosed with lung cancer and other severe conditions gather and organize relevant information about their injuries. He wrote this for Medicalopedia.