The Hidden Women’s Cancer

by Jan Simpson

If you had to guess what form of cancer accounts for more deaths among women each year, what would you say?  Breast cancer? Ovarian cancer? Melanoma? My guess would have been breast cancer until I attended a luncheon sponsored by the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. According to Dr. Yolonda Colson, lung cancer accounts for more deaths among women each year than breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers combined.

She calls it the hidden women’s cancer, hidden in part because of the stigma attached to smoking, one of the leading causes of lung cancer. Yet Dr. Colson and her colleagues have researched how lung cancer differs between women and men and they have found some surprising results:

  • Lung cancer rates are higher among women who have never smoked compared to men.
  • Approximately 20 to 25 percent of all women with lung cancer have never smoked compared with only five to 10 percent of men.
  • Women seem to be more susceptible to certain types of lung cancer and tend to live longer with lung cancer than men.

My father had been a lifetime smoker, and so I was saddened but not surprised when he was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 78.  But as a non-smoker, I was shocked to learn from Dr. Colson that one out of five women diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked.  Two risk factors for women are a previous history of breast cancer and a family history of lung cancer.  Exposure to secondhand smoke is a third. Dr. Colson also indicated that environmental exposure to radon could be significant as well.  Maintaining a smoke-free work and home environment and testing for radon levels at home are prudent ways to lower risk.

If a woman you love has been diagnosed with lung cancer, I would encourage you to read the Women’s Lung Cancer Program website where specialists from the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center answer frequently asked questions about women and lung cancer.  If you are researching hospitals for treatment, the National Cancer Institute has designated 40 American hospitals as comprehensive cancer centers, one may be located near your home. And if you are a caregiver for a person living with cancer, you will find suggestions for coping and caring for a loved one here.

Has someone you love been diagnosed with lung cancer?

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