Leading Cancer Killer in Women

Medically reviewed in March 2021

For years, doctors have warned women about the risks of breast, cervical, ovarian and other female cancers—and rightly so. These cancers take the lives of hundreds of thousands of women each year.

But while the number of deaths from breast cancer has declined, lung cancer has quietly become the leading cause of cancer deaths in women in developed countries. In the U.S. alone, lung cancer kills more women than all gynecologic cancers combined.

Detailed in their 2015 report, the American Cancer Society (ACS) found that in developed countries in 2012, 209,000 women died of lung cancer, compared to 197,000 breast cancer deaths. And over the past 37 years, the number of women diagnosed with lung cancer has increased a whopping 98 percent.

Why the rise?
Many experts, including the lead author of the ACS report, cite smoking as the main reason for this increase, and smoking remains the number one risk factor for the disease.

But smoking isn’t the only reason.

One in five women with lung cancer have never smoked. What’s more – nonsmoking women develop lung cancer in higher numbers than nonsmoking men. Fifteen to 20 percent of women who get lung cancer don’t smoke, compared to just 10 percent of men.

And that’s led some experts to consider the role estrogen might play in the development of lung cancer in women.

“The thought process is that there are estrogen receptors in lung tissue,” says oncologist Miriam Atkins, MD, of Doctors Hospital and Augusta Oncology Associates in Georgia.

“So on a cellular level you could say it does play a role, particularly because the type of [lung] cancer nonsmoking women get is an adenocarcinoma.” Adenocarcinomas are cancers that affect the lining of glands in the body, like the breasts.

Lack of awareness partially to blame
Another reason for the rise in lung cancer deaths in women may have to do with a lack of public awareness about who gets it. Many people don’t know that nonsmokers get lung cancer. As a result, it often goes undiagnosed until it’s more advanced. If you’re a nonsmoker, often a nagging cough is more likely to be attributed to a lingering cold than a growing cancer.

Plus, because it’s linked to smoking, far less money is spent on research of lung cancer than on other diseases.

Seeing the signs
The five-year survival rate for lung cancer among both men and women is 17.4 percent but, according to Atkins, you can greatly improve your odds by heeding the warning signs early and seeing your doctor.

“Pay attention to symptoms,” says Dr. Atkins. “Many people are diagnosed later because sometimes the symptoms can be vague. If you have a cough or cold that doesn’t go away in a few weeks, you need to be seen. Also, if there’s a voice change or you have chest wall pain, those things can also be symptoms of lung cancer.”

Other lung cancer symptoms include a cough with blood, hoarseness, weight loss or loss of appetite, shortness of breath, fatigue, chronic lung infections and wheezing.

Love your lungs
If you haven’t already, the most important thing you can do to protect your health is to kick the smoking habit, says Atkins. And, if you live with a smoker, ask them to quit.

“I wish my patients understood that even if they don’t smoke and they live with a smoker, their risk is still higher,” says Atkins.

In addition to exercising most days and maintaining a healthy diet, other ways to stay healthy include having your home tested for radon, a known risk factor for lung cancer, and avoiding other carcinogens in the environment, such as asbestos.

It’s also important to know your risk and talk to your doctor if you’re concerned, says Atkins. “If your doctor isn’t listening to you, find someone else,” she says.

“Keep pressing until someone listens to you, and something gets done.”

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