For generations, women rightly believed that lung cancer was a man’s disease. For decades, it was their fathers and brothers who were diagnosed with lung cancers often times because of exposure to cigarette smoke and workplace exposure to asbestos. Today, women represent the fastest growing population of newly diagnosed cases of lung cancer primarily because of cigarette smoking. The number of women in the United States diagnosed with lung cancer from the period of 1991 through 2005 increased a half a percent each year in that time period. A more staggering number is that between the years 1930 and 1997 the number of lung cancer deaths in U.S. women has increased 600%. Figures like these point to an epidemic, and the American Cancer Society estimated that 70,000 women died from lung cancer in 2009.
The most common cause of lung cancer in both men and women is smoking. Happily, smoking in both men and women is on the decline. In fact, over the last four decades, male smokers have decreased by half while women have only decreased by one quarter. Smoking is believed to be the cause of over 85% of lung cancers. Anti-smoking campaigns and newer legislation are geared to reducing the number of smokers, thus greatly reducing the number of lung cancer deaths. Lung cancer causes around 160,000 U.S. deaths per year, which is more deaths than those attributed to breast, colo-rectal, and prostate cancers combined.
Many women can be spared the devastating news of a lung cancer diagnosis if they simply never begin smoking. Sadly, the Center for Disease Control or U.S. CDC reports that over 500,000 teenage girls use tobacco. Advertisements from tobacco companies imply that smoking is associated with being slim, social and independent, themes that can resonate with young girls and women. Statistics show that the younger you are when you begin smoking the more difficult it may be to stop. Nicotine is highly addictive and smoking cessation can be difficult for many women.
The good news is that in 2010, the United States had 47 million former smokers which beat out the 46 million current smokers. Nearly 3/4 of smokers who successfully quit did so on their own or “cold turkey.” Smoking cessation programs, prescription medication, nicotine products and other methods can greatly help those who want to quit smoking. Former smokers can be on par with non-smokers in their risk of developing lung cancer after 10 smoke-free years, and of course the immediate benefits of stopping smoking are well worth the effort.
Lung cancer can occur in both men and women who have never smoked, and approximately 10 to 15% of lung cancer patients or roughly 20 to 30, 000 annually are diagnosed. Non-smoking women are more likely to develop lung cancer than their non-smoking male counterparts. Some studies show that women may be more susceptible to the carcinogens from smoking and second-hand smoke. Women are more likely to develop lung cancer earlier than men. The epidemic nature of women and lung cancer diagnoses has prompted many researchers to investigate how women differ from men in both risk for and treatment of lung cancer. The role of genetic and hormonal differences between men and women will need to be studied further to determine how women may respond differently to treatments.
All lung cancers in both men and women tend to be diagnosed in the later stages of the disease when treatment options may be limited. The overall five-year survival rate of those diagnosed with lung cancer is around 16 percent. Currently, there is controversy over whether early screening may be warranted for individuals with high-risk factors for lung cancer (i.e. smokers). Since there are currently limitations on early detection, it is imperative that women and men, particularly smokers, not ignore possible symptoms and warning signs of lung cancer. These include but are not limited to: persistent smokers cough, blood in sputum, color and or volume change in sputum, reoccurring pneumonia or bronchitis, and wheezing. Non-smokers should consult their health care provider if they have a persistent cough that lasts more than 2 weeks. Other serious symptoms for lung cancer include extreme fatigue, unexplained weight loss, swelling of neck and/or face, neurological symptoms like headaches, joint pain, and unexplained bone fractures.
Women need to keep the news of rising rates of lung cancer in perspective; the majority of lung cancers are completely preventable. Smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer. If you never smoke, you can eliminate the largest risk of lung cancer. If you stop smoking, you can greatly reduce your lifetime risk of getting lung cancer. While lung cancer is increasing for non-smokers, many health organizations and national agencies are calling for more research into the possible causes and treatment of non-smoking related lung cancers. Additionally, scientific researchers, now more than ever, are taking into account the differences between men and women and disease. They are working hard to find out how biological, hormonal, and genetic differences between the sexes can impact both the onset of disease and different treatment options.
These studies will continue to offer hope for cures and possible preventions to disease. In June 2010, The Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of an international study, which showed that individuals, including smokers, whose blood contained high levels of vitamin B6 and high levels of the amino acid methionine were 60 percent less likely to develop lung cancer. All studies need to be reviewed and replicated, but the good news is that lung cancer, as well as other cancers, continue to be investigated, and strides are being made every day.
Dr. Hardy is a solo physician in practice with Atlantic Ob/Gyn with locations in Chesapeake and Va. Beach. Call 757-463-1234 or visit www.atlanticobgyn.com.