There is a strong relationship between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma, but there have been suggestions that the toxic material could also be linked with ovarian cancer. Over the past 5 years, evidence has shown that there is indeed an association between asbestos exposure and the development of ovarian cancer.

Researchers have had suspicions that asbestos might play a role in ovarian cancer along with a risk factor in mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. This hunch was affirmed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), as the working group believes there is sufficient evidence from various studies for a causal association.

Concluding that there is a causal association between asbestos and ovarian cancer means that asbestos exposure is not the sole reason for the development of disease, but it plays a large role.

History of Suspicion but Lack of Evidence

The relationship between asbestos exposure and ovarian cancer is not as well defined as that of other asbestos-related diseases. In past studies, links between asbestos and ovarian cancer failed due to limitations in study populations and accurate diagnosis.

Research that has examined the relationship in the past was limited for 2 reasons:

  1. Few Cases: Fewer women than men are at risk of asbestos exposure through their occupation. With a reduced chance of exposure, it has been hard to create the link between asbestos and ovarian cancer diagnosis.
  2. Misdiagnosis: It’s debatable how accurate death certificates are within asbestos-related diseases. Cause of death is often misreported, which limits researchers ability to gain accurate data while investigating the relationship between ovarian cancer and asbestos exposure.

Additionally, before the introduction of a new diagnostic test in 1996, it was very difficult to distinguish between ovarian cancer and peritoneal mesothelioma—mesothelioma that affects the abdominal lining.

Current Research Shows Relationship Between Asbestos Exposure and Ovarian Cancer

Only in the past 20 years have diagnostic techniques been able to accurately differentiate between peritoneal mesothelioma and ovarian cancer. The sophistication in diagnostic technologies paired with an increased risk of asbestos exposure in women has allowed researchers to gain access to accurate data and draw confident conclusions.

Results from multiple studies revealed that women who had been exposed to asbestos were more likely to develop ovarian cancer. These women were around one-and-three quarter times more likely to have ovarian cancer when compared to those who had no history of asbestos exposure.

The exact details behind how asbestos increases the risk of ovarian cancer are still under debate. Most of the proposed explanations suggest chronic inflammation due to asbestos fibers within ovarian tissues. Inflammation causes stress on the tissues, which damages the cell’s DNA and leads to cancerous mutations.

How Asbestos Reaches the Ovaries Remains Unclear

With peritoneal and pleural mesothelioma, it’s clear that asbestos fibers reach the lungs or abdomen through inhaling or ingesting fibers.

But how the asbestos fibers make their way into the ovaries in the first place is still under investigation.

Some researchers suggest that these fibers are being transported through the reproductive tract. Others think that they may be traveling to the ovaries via the bloodstream or lymphatic system and then infiltrating the ovaries by way of the mesothelium lining.

Women, Asbestos Exposure and Ovarian Cancer

Asbestos exposure affects more men than women, as they represent the majority of workers within the industrial sector, but women are still at risk.

Exposure to asbestos can occur in 3 ways:

  1. On the Job: Asbestos-related diseases have developed in women who work/worked within factories or similar industrial settings, or within older or damaged buildings. Women should be aware of available safety equipment and the responsibilities of their employer to protect them from exposure.
  2. Environmental: Natural asbestos deposits exist across the United States and mining these sites can cause the fibers to be released into the area.
  3. Secondary Exposure: It is possible to be exposed to asbestos from individuals or family members who work around asbestos. These fibers often stick to clothes and gear, putting women at risk if they are taking care of the washing.

If you have been recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer and suspect that you have been in contact with asbestos, contact our Patient Advocates today.

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Sources
  1. Chemistry World, “Asbestos linked to ovarian cancer.” Retrieved from: https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/asbestos-linked-to-ovarian-cancer/3000413.article. Accessed on: June 16, 2018
  2. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, “Does Exposure to Asbestos Cause Ovarian Cancer? A Systematic Literature Review and Meta-analysis.” Retrieved from: http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/20/7/1287. Accessed on: June 16th, 2018

Last modified: April 4, 2019