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Last Updated: 06/05/2024
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How Long Does Mesothelioma Take to Develop?

Mesothelioma takes decades to develop — usually 20 to 60 years. The period between when someone was exposed to asbestos and when they were diagnosed with mesothelioma is known as the mesothelioma latency period.

According to a 2022 study, the shorter their latency period. People who have years of exposure to asbestos typically develop mesothelioma more quickly than those with brief or low-level exposure.

Mesothelioma Latency Period
Peritoneal mesothelioma usually takes 20 to 40 years to develop, while pleural mesothelioma usually takes 30 to 60 years.

The majority of people who receive a mesothelioma diagnosis are in their 60s or 70s. This is because cancer develops decades after asbestos exposure.

People usually do not receive a mesothelioma diagnosis until common symptoms of the disease become nagging or debilitating. The most frequent symptoms are persistent coughing and difficulty breathing.

Key Facts About Mesothelioma Latency
  • A latency period of less than 15 years is rare.
  • The longest documented latency period is 70 years.
  • The median latency period is 40 years.
  • Peritoneal mesothelioma has a latency period of 20-40 years.
  • Pleural mesothelioma has a latency period of 30-60 years.

Factors That Impact Mesothelioma Latency Period

Research shows that asbestos exposure is the primary factor in disease latency. The duration and intensity of exposure will likely determine how long until mesothelioma develops. Exposure to specific types of asbestos fibers can shorten the latency period. 

There are six different types of asbestos. Each one has distinct fibers with different uses. Crocidolite, or blue asbestos, is made up of extremely thin fibers. This may contribute to it being more deadly than other types of asbestos with a shorter latency period. Crocidolite may also cause higher rates of peritoneal mesothelioma.

Research shows that the type of exposure affects latency. People who have worked in factories that produce asbestos or asbestos-containing products have a shorter latency period than people who have worked in asbestos mines or lived near a mine.

Another factor affecting latency may be genetic predisposition. People with specific mutations in certain genes may have a shorter latency period.

Duration and Intensity of Asbestos Exposure

Long-term exposure to asbestos or exposure to high levels of asbestos — even for a short time — can lead to a shorter latency period. The total amount of asbestos you are exposed to may have the largest effect on mesothelioma latency.

People who have worked in industries with long-term exposure, such as insulation workers, can have latency periods of less than 30 years. First responders are one group that can have short-term, high-level exposure. Many paramedics, firefighters and police officers who worked in the aftermath of 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina developed mesothelioma from short-term exposure.

How long of an exposure is enough to cause mesothelioma? Chuck Gast told The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com all it took was six weeks for him. In 1973, while working as a teacher, he took a summer job to make extra money. 

“For approximately six weeks, I worked in an industrial furnace factory,” Gast said. “The furnace insulation was asbestos, so I was directly involved with it, getting it all over me.” 

It was 40 years after this short period of exposure that doctors diagnosed both him and his former wife with mesothelioma. Those in close contact with someone who works with asbestos can also be at risk from asbestos as fibers and dust can be brought home on clothing.

Survivor Story
Chuck Gast Pleural Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma Diagnosed 40 Years After Asbestos Exposure

Survivor Story

Chuck Gast and his former wife both developed mesothelioma resulting from his exposure to asbestos furnace insulation. He may have been exposed as an elementary school teacher for 16 years, but it was a summer job in 1973 that greatly contributed to his cancer diagnosis.

Read Chuck’s Story

High-Risk Occupations

Specific jobs can expose workers to very high concentrations of asbestos. More than 75 occupations put workers at risk of asbestos exposure. Depending on the profession, exposure can be long-term or high in asbestos concentration. In these cases, the latency period is likely to be shorter.

High-Risk Job Sites

  • Asbestos mines
  • Boiler rooms
  • Factories
  • Power plants
  • Shipyards
  • Textile mills

Chuck Gast had exposure to very high levels of asbestos during his summer job. At his job, he would regularly handle asbestos insulation, packing it into furnaces by hand and working with asbestos bricks, breathing in fibers from the air in the factory. His main symptom, fluid around the lungs, did not appear until four decades after his exposure.

“I was 27 years old and never thought something like this would come back to haunt me,” he said. “That’s one job I should have never taken.” 

Secondhand Exposure

Secondhand asbestos exposure occurs when one person transfers asbestos fibers to someone else. This can happen when workers have fibers on their bodies or clothing. Secondhand asbestos exposure can be just as dangerous as firsthand exposure.

People who work with asbestos may bring the toxic fibers home on their work clothes and shoes. Secondhand exposure poses a threat to family members, especially if they handle contaminated items. This low level of asbestos exposure tends to have a more extended latency period than direct exposure.

Three years before his mesothelioma diagnosis, Chuck Gast’s former wife, Melva, was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma. Her exposure to asbestos was secondhand. 

“I brought the [asbestos] fibers home on my clothing and she would launder my clothes,” Gast said. 

Her symptoms developed a few years before Gast noticed his symptoms. According to one of his doctors in Toledo, it is extremely rare for two people in the same household to have a mesothelioma diagnosis.

Characteristics Associated with Mesothelioma Latency Period

A patient’s age, gender and cancer location have associations with the latency period. For example, older adults tend to receive a mesothelioma diagnosis because the latency period is so long.

Mesothelioma latency can vary greatly between individuals despite having similar exposures. Cheryl Pilkington and Tamron Little both faced exposure to asbestos as young children, but they developed mesothelioma differently. Pilkington told the Mesothelioma Center that her pleural mesothelioma diagnosis came 60 years after her repeated exposure to asbestos at her father’s workshop.

I was just 21 years old when I was told I had peritoneal mesothelioma Being diagnosed so young is a rarity, and I knew nothing about the disease. I didn’t even know where to start. Research information that was available to me at the time gave a bleak outlook, plus I didn’t fit the description of the typical mesothelioma patient.

Little, on the other hand, had exposure to asbestos as a toddler and developed peritoneal mesothelioma at a young age. Although they had comparable exposures at similar ages, these two women developed different types of mesothelioma with very different latency periods.

Cancer Location

The location in the body where mesothelioma occurs affects latency. Researchers estimate that pleural mesothelioma is the form with the most prolonged latency. It can take 30 to 60 years to develop. Meanwhile, the latency period for the peritoneal form is shorter, falling between 20 and 40 years.

One study in Australia showed that peritoneal mesothelioma had a significantly shorter latency period than pleural mesothelioma. In this study, men and women both had an average latency of about 44 years for pleural mesothelioma, but latency for peritoneal mesothelioma was under 30 years for women and 38.8 years for men.

Gender

Gender may also play a role in determining latency. Some studies suggest that women tend to have a longer mesothelioma latency than men, but this can vary based on the location of the cancer. Researchers hypothesize that this is a result of lower exposure levels in women. However, the latest data show that the number of mesothelioma deaths has increased significantly for women in recent years, despite lower occupational exposure.

Men have more history of asbestos exposure on the job. This is especially true for construction, power and factory occupations. These jobs exposed workers to heavy concentrations of asbestos for long durations. Based on these factors, latency in men is likely to be shorter than in women.

Women may have greater secondhand asbestos exposure than men. These lower exposures can last for shorter periods, which is likely to correlate with a longer latency period. However, research has identified asbestos-contaminated talc in cosmetic products as a source of asbestos exposure in women. This may affect latency data because asbestos exposure may be much longer.

Age

Some research suggests that age at the time of asbestos exposure may impact latency. This can be due to several age-related factors. According to a study from the U.K.’s Committee on Carcinogenicity, exposure to asbestos at age 5 is five times more likely to result in mesothelioma than exposure as an adult at age 30. Exposed children may be more susceptible to developing mesothelioma later in life due to differences in lung function and immune function between children and adults.

75-79 years old

Age range of most mesothelioma diagnoses.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Children’s lungs and immune systems are still developing. Developing lungs may be more susceptible to damage from asbestos, and a developing immune system may not be able to clear the body of asbestos as well as an adult. Children also have a longer average mesothelioma life expectancy than adults. Assuming an average latency of 40 years, a 5-year-old is more likely to develop mesothelioma than a 30-year-old adult.

Additionally, immune system function declines as people age. Older bodies may have more difficulty removing asbestos fibers and repairing organ damage. This may increase people’s risk of developing mesothelioma as they age.

Latency Period and Mesothelioma Diagnosis

Symptoms of mesothelioma may not appear until the cancer is in stage 3. The earliest signs are shortness of breath, chest pain and fatigue. Asbestos exposure occurred 20 to 60 years ago in most cases. Many patients overlook their distant past when considering possible causes of their illness. This often leads to an initial misdiagnosis.

Delayed onset of symptoms and late diagnosis contribute to a poor mesothelioma prognosis. Survival improves with a diagnosis at earlier stages. Aggressive treatment can lead to cancer remission in some cases.

Some people can receive a mesothelioma diagnosis at surprisingly young ages. Alyssa Hankus was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma when she was only 15. 

My doctors told me it takes at least 15 years to present symptoms, but I actually started showing symptoms around age 12.

After receiving very aggressive treatment, Hankus has been in remission for over 15 years. She does not take life for granted. 

“It’s all a part of that continued fight of making it and achieving all of the things that at 15 I was told I never would,” she said. “Those little day-to-day simple joys are what mean so much, because those were never promised to me.”

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