Did you know that lung cancer is the #1 cause of cancer death among women in the United States? Most people assume that it would be breast cancer, but it’s actually lung cancer. Lung cancer used to be thought of as a man’s disease, but women now account for almost half of new cases and half of deaths from lung cancer. In fact, the number of deaths from lung cancer in women surpasses those from all gynecological cancers combined. And although this number has been declining in recent years, that decline among women may not be as rapid as it has been in men because women smokers born around 1960 are just now entering their 60s, the age at which lung cancer is most common, according to StopCancerFund.org.
What causes lung cancer?
Cigarette smoking is by far the leading cause of lung cancer, says the American Cancer Society, but people who have never smoked can also develop it.
Other factors that increase a person’s risk of lung cancer include:
- secondhand smoke
- arsenic in drinking water
- inhaled chemicals such as benzene, beryllium, cadmium, silica, vinyl chloride, nickel compounds, chromium compounds, coal products, mustard gas and chloromethyl ethers
- a family history of lung cancer
- high levels of air pollution
- radiation therapy to the lungs
- exposure to radioactive ores such as uranium
- diesel exhaust
- inherited DNA mutations
Symptoms of lung cancer
According to StopCancerFund.org, the most common symptoms of lung cancer include:
- persistent cough that worsens over time
- persistent chest pain
- coughing that wakes you up at night
- coughing up blood
- wheezing and/or shortness of breath
- swelling of the face and neck
- loss of appetite
- unexplained weight loss
- unusual tiredness
- recurring pneumonia or bronchitis
- difficulty swallowing
The possible role of estrogen in lung cancer in women
Although smoking increases the risk of lung cancer dramatically, 1 in 5 women diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked, compared to 1 in 12 men with lung cancer who have never smoked, says StopCancerFund.org. As to why non-smoking women are at greater risk for developing lung cancer than non-smoking men, studies indicate that estrogen, a hormone found in both men and women but much higher in women, may help certain lung cancer cells to grow and spread throughout the lungs.
Research bears out this theory. A 2009 study showed that post-menopausal women who took estrogen and progesterone combined hormone therapy had an increased risk of dying from lung cancer, regardless of whether they had never smoked, stopped smoking or were currently smoking. Similarly, a 2011 study revealed that women who take estrogen-blocking medication to prevent a recurrence of breast cancer also reduce their risk of dying from lung cancer. For more details about these studies and their findings, click here.
African American women are more likely to die from lung cancer than white women
According to StopCancerFund.org, the occurrence of lung cancer among African American women is about the same as white women even though African American women tend to smoke less. However, African American women are more likely to die from lung cancer than white women. Even African American women who have never smoked have higher death rates from lung cancer than white women who have never smoked.
The most common reason given for this disparity is that African Americans do not have the same access to health care as whites, as well as a host of other factors. For instance, they:
- are less likely to have health insurance coverage which could impact diagnosis and treatment options
- are less likely to receive timely care
- may not receive the most effective treatment for their type of lung cancer
- healthcare provider biases
- inadequate physician-patient communication
- distrust of physicians and the healthcare system
- a greater likelihood of refusing surgery
Better survival rates for women
Some good news is that the survival rate for lung cancer in women is higher than for men at all stages of the disease. Why? Scientists aren’t sure but one reason may be that women tend to notice symptoms and go to the doctor earlier than men, enabling the disease to be caught at an earlier stage when the cancer is still in the lung and can be completely removed.
With more research, better outcomes
In many ways, lung cancer is a different disease in women than in men, states VeryWellHealth.com. Fortunately, these differences are becoming more clear as lung cancer in women is now nearly as common as in men, and as researchers learn more about the molecular variations between different cancers. New discoveries are being made every day, which will guide more effective treatment and personalize lung cancer care.
Read our pulmonology blogs
We’ve written several informative blogs about the diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the respiratory system, which you can read here.
If you’re concerned about your risk of lung cancer, come see us.
If you’re worried that you may be at risk of developing lung cancer, or if you’re noticing some of the symptoms mentioned above, please call (914) 440-2555 to make an appointment to come in and see me, a pulmonology specialist with Westchester Health. I will evaluate your condition, perform some tests, discuss your options, and together with you, determine what kind of treatment, if needed, would be best going forward. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.
By Andrea Isaacs, MD, FCCP, Pulmonologist with Westchester Health, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners