A landmark report published by the surgeon general in 1964 stated that smoking could cause lung cancer in men, but did little to address a woman’s risk as few had smoked long enough to produce evidence. Today, we know that a woman smoker’s risk of lung cancer death is more than 25 times higher than those who never smoked.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 21 million American women smoke. The chance that a woman will develop lung cancer in her lifetime is approximately one in 16. Furthermore, there will be 105,590 new cases of lung cancer in women in this year alone and a staggering 71,660 deaths.
Women are catching up to men in their risk for lung cancers related to lighting up. In fact, lung cancer is now the leading cause of cancer deaths in women, having surpassed the number of deaths related to breast cancer several years ago.
“We are seeing increasingly worrisome figures, particularly because lung cancer is notoriously caught late and is difficult to treat,” says Dr. Siavash Jabbari, a radiation oncologist affiliated with Sharp Community Medical Group. “Approximately 55 percent of sufferers are diagnosed at stage 4 when the cancer has spread beyond the chest and is typically incurable. Because of longer life spans, women are also at risk of losing more life years due to smoking than men.”
Screening and treatment save lives
The single most important factor in the successful treatment of lung cancer is early detection. Symptoms may take years to appear, so doctors should consider annual CT screenings for high-risk patients. This has been shown to significantly reduce deaths despite controversy over cost-effectiveness. This type of screening for appropriate patients is now supported by several national guidelines.
When doctors find lung cancer early, women have several treatment options. Tremendous advances in surgery, radiotherapy and anti-cancer drugs help improve survival and quality of life in various stages of the disease.
Stop smoking, now
“Of course, the old adage of prevention over treatment holds true for lung cancer and begins with one of the most important decisions a person will make: the decision to quit smoking,” says Dr. Jabbari. “We know with certainty that it is never too late to quit smoking, and that the benefits are huge and long-lasting.”
Dr. Jabbari joins the American Lung Association in suggesting the following steps women can take to avoid lung cancer:
- Stop smoking. Quitting smoking is the single most important thing a smoker can do to enhance the length and quality of her life.
- If you don't smoke, don't start. Furthermore, remember that when smoking is combined with another risk factor, such as exposure to toxic dust and fumes, the possibility of developing cancer is even higher.
- Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.
- Make your home smoke-free to protect yourself and your loved ones.
While the prevalence of lung cancer presents a challenge for society, there is hope for life beyond diagnosis. In fact, more than 430,000 people once diagnosed with lung cancer are alive today.