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.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 18 million American women smoke. The chance that a woman will develop lung cancer in her lifetime is approximately 1 in 17. Furthermore, there will be 111,710 new cases of lung cancer in women in this year alone and a staggering 66,020 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 a few decades ago.
"We are seeing increasingly worrisome figures, particularly because lung cancer is notoriously caught late and is difficult to treat," says Dr. Craig Larson, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Sharp Memorial Hospital. About 40% 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 — especially less invasive robotic surgery — as well as radiotherapy and anti-cancer drugs help improve survival and quality of life in various stages of the disease. Sharp Memorial is one of only a few hospitals in the region to offer minimally invasive surgery to treat early-stage lung cancer.
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. Larson. "We know with certainty that it is never too late to quit smoking, and that the benefits are huge and long-lasting."
Dr. Larson 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.