Lung Cancer & Women - Special Considerations

Lung cancer is a major concern for women. Today, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. for women. More women die each year from lung cancer than they do from breast, ovarian and uterine cancer combined. About 22 million women in the United States smoke, and this is the leading cause of lung cancer.

Risk for Non-smoking Women

In the thirteen years between 1990 and 2003, there was a 60% increase in the number of lung cancer cases in women, while there was no increase in the percentage for men. While smoking is certainly the main culprit, researchers are finding an increase in lung cancer among women who don't smoke as well. While the exact reasons for this increase aren't well understood, researchers pinpoint three main factors that may be leading to this increase. These include genetic factors, environmental factors including how much women are exposed to second hand smoke or radon, and hormones such as estrogen.

Risk for Women Who Smoke

Nearly 25% of women in the United States smoke! Many of these women are teenage girls with an estimate by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that at least 500,000 girls smoke. Many women smoke because of the belief that smoking can help them to control their weight and because of misleading advertising. There is no conclusive evidence that women are more likely than men to develop lung cancer from smoking. There does seem to be some data, however, that shows that women have a more difficult time quitting smoking.

Lung Cancer - Differences Between Men and Women

When women and men develop lung cancer, there are biological differences between the diseases that they struggle with. Women are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of tobacco. There are differences in how the chemicals in tobacco are broken down by the body in men and women. Women may have a decreased ability to repair damaged DNA, which can cause cancer to develop easier. Finally, hormones like estrogen may affect cancer growth.

Differences in Treatment and Survival

There are also differences in the type of treatment that women have for lung cancer and in their survival rates as compared to those of men. While the reason isn't understood, women live longer with lung cancer than men. The five year survival rate after diagnosis is higher for women then it is for men. Also, studies have found that women who have lung cancer respond better to certain therapies than do men. Women respond better to cisplatin (Platinol) based treatment. Women are also more likely to benefit from a new therapy called gifitinib (Iressa). There are many clinical trials being conducted at the moment to see if similar drugs, such as erlotinib (Tarceva), are also more effective for women than they are for men.

All of this information is quite interesting, and can change the way that women are diagnosed and treated. With more time, researchers will be able to determine more about how women respond to lung cancer and how they are unique as compared to men with this disease.