Lung Cancer in Women—You Have Come a Long Way, Baby

Dr. ALlen Weiss, MD, MBA, FACP, FACR

(May 1, 2007) - Mother’s Day allows us to recognize the women in our lives whose health is so important for many reasons. Understanding the risks women face allows their families, their caregivers, and the women themselves, to help lower those risks and improve their health.

With this goal in mind, medical science is now focusing on lung cancer as the leading cancer killer of women in the United States. Lung cancer deaths have now overtaken breast cancer deaths and, in fact, surpass fatalities due to breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers combined, according recent medical news reports. Between the years 1930-1997 tobacco related deaths among American women increased six-fold!

Why this alarming trend? Cigarette smoking became popular and widely accepted among women during World War II, when millions of American housewives joined the workforce. Subsequently, tobacco industry advertising and marketing campaigns successfully linked smoking to the women’s liberation movement, and the practice became a symbol of independence and equality. It was not until 1955 that the relationship between smoking and lung cancer was uncovered. Smoking cessation campaigns, however, had little traction until decades later, but by then, the current generation of women victims already had irreparable damage to their lungs. Today some 70,000 women annually die from lung cancer.

Young women are still targeted by tobacco companies and their ad agencies to begin and continue smoking. The idea that lung cancer has become a startling “women’s disease” is not in fashion, whereas being thin is. Many young women start smoking and continue to do so to control their weight. They are in denial about the health risks for both lung cancer and emphysema, which are much greater than the danger of being modestly overweight.

An interesting and somewhat disquieting fact is that one in five women diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked. Of the total non-smokers who die of lung cancer, a staggering sixty-five percent are women. Some may have been exposed to second hand smoke, and there is also some evidence that the hormone estrogen may make women more susceptible to lung cancer.

What can a woman do to reduce risk? The best advice is DON’T START SMOKING! -- followed by STOP NOW! if you already smoke. As we all know, smoking is extremely addictive. Some authorities believe, in fact, that it is harder to quit smoking than it is to end addiction to other drugs. Fortunately, there are a few new medicines and nicotine substitutes available which, along with behavior modification, are proving effective.

If you have smoked in the past, are currently smoking, or have a family history of lung cancer consult with your physician about screening tests. Chest X-rays and CT scans of the lungs can pick up tumors when they are still curable. Of course, one has to be careful about too frequent screening because of radiation exposure; properly timed searches, however, may help with early detection.

Obviously, we, as a society, need to avoid the use of tobacco. We need to ignore, and encourage others, particularly the youth in our country, to ignore the appeal of tobacco marketing. The best method of lowering the incidence of lung cancer in women is to stop the use of tobacco completely. “You’ve come a long way baby” may have been a “cool” cigarette smoking slogan decades ago but it has proven to be deadly today. Let’s help the women in our community stay healthy so we can all enjoy a HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY.



Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.