Women and Lung Cancer

Smoking is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer, which causes about 160,000 deaths each year. Yet not all people with lung cancer are, or were, smokers. In fact, 10 to 15 percent of lung cancer deaths are the result of other causes.

Although it was once thought of as a man’s disease, lung cancer in women is ever present. In 2006 statistics showed there were 106,374 men and 90,080 women diagnosed with lung cancer. Lung cancer kills nearly twice as many women as breast cancer; 20% of diagnosed women have never touched a cigarette. 

Lung cancer in women differs from that in men in many ways, including the type of lung cancer most commonly found, the symptoms that are present at the time of diagnosis, and in survival rates at each stage of the disease. Sadly, unlike the recent decrease in the number of lung cancers diagnosed in men, lung cancer in women continues to increase

Just recently NFL retiree Chris Draft lost his wife, Lakeasha to the disease just one month after their wedding.  She was only 38 years and a non-smoker.  She was diagnosed with the terminal disease last year according to the Daily Mail, joining the 16,000 to 24,000 Americans who die of lung cancer every year even though they have never smoked. 

A co-worker’s mother-in-law died from lung cancer.  She was not a smoker.  Another co-worker’s mother died from the disease and she too wasn’t a smoker.  Second hand smoke could be the cause.  I remember seeing a PSA of a woman who died lung cancer because she was exposed to it due to her line of work.  I have seen people smoking around babies and young children and fear for their health.   

Why do non-smokers get lung cancer? This is a tough question.  “We’re not sure why,” says Joan Schiller, MD, chief of the division of hematology-oncology and deputy director of the Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, president and founder of the National Lung Cancer Partnership, and national spokesperson for the American Lung Association. “Radon probably causes a small amount of it. Passive smoke probably causes a small amount of it. The rest of it — we’re just not sure yet,” she says.

Other factors beside smoking which increase the risk of developing lung cancer include exposure to:

  • radon
  • secondhand smoke
  • asbestos
  • radiation therapy
  • combustion products
  • other carcinogens

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. Radon gas is a product of decay, and found in almost all rock, soil, and water. It can seep into your home from the soil, usually though cracks and holes in your foundation. When you breathe in radon gas, radioactive particles may remain in your lungs, causing damage that can later lead to lung cancer. There are simple tests to check for radon in the air and water in your home and, if levels are high, “abatement” systems can be installed to filter the radon and lower those levels.

Cooking fumes can be another cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.  Researchers looking at why non-smoking Taiwanese women develop lung cancer suggest an association between the cancer and the fumes created by their cooking food in oil heated to extremely high temperatures.  This one scared me because the other day the smoke was a bit much when I finished frying chicken and I put the pan with the hot oil in the sink.  I should have waited for it to cool down first.  I had to press my face in the crack in the door to breathe in some fresh air. 

Air pollution is another factor.   Ethnicity also could be a risk factor. One study shows that non-smoking African-Americans and Asians who live in Japan and Korea — but not the United States — died more frequently from lung cancer than those of European descent.

What are the signs and symptoms? Lung cancer often doesn’t cause any symptoms in its early stages, however, as the cancer grows, symptoms may include:

  • a cough that gets worse or doesn’t go away
  • breathing problems, such as shortness of breath or wheezing
  • constant chest pain, especially when you cough
  • coughing up blood
  • a hoarse voice
  • frequent chest infections, such as pneumonia, or an infection that doesn’t go away
  • fatigue (feeling very tired all the time)
  • unexplained weight loss
  • loss of appetite

Be aware that other health problems can cause some of the same symptoms and this is why testing is needed to make a diagnosis.

The good news is that a new lung-cancer screening method that uses a CT scanner which holds the promise of catching the disease far sooner–and possibly increasing a woman’s odds of survival. The scanners can provide doctors with a three-dimensional cross section of the lungs, revealing the exact shape and location of internal organs and soft tissue. They can also detect tumors that are the size of a pea. The scans are so accurate that preliminary research conducted at Cornell University found CT screenings could detect early-stage malignancies that conventional chest X-rays missed some 85 percent of the time.

As with most cancers, early detection and healthy diet are key.  There is some evidence suggesting that a diet high in carotenoid-rich foods may help protect against lung cancer in both smokers and non-smokers. 

Here are some tips to reduce your risk of getting lung cancer:

  • Quit smoking – NOW
  • Listen to Mom, and eat those fruits and veggies!
  • Have your home tested for radon.
  • Know what you are being exposed to in the workplace.
  • Keep away from secondhand smoke.

I was inspired to do this post because of Lakeasha Monique Rutledge Draft who “courageously faced lung cancer, showing us all with every breath that we all need to hold onto life and love with both hands for as long as we can.” 


Sources:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/03/chris-draft-wife-sheds-light-on-lung-cancer-among-non-smokers_n_1181343.htmlhttp://www.everydayhealth.com/lung-cancer/why-non-smokers-get-lung-cancer.aspx; http://lungcancer.about.com/od/whatislungcancer/a/factsaboutlungcancer.htm; http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/womens-health/women-lung-cancer-oct01; http://www.cancer.ca/Canada-wide/About%20cancer/Types%20of%20cancer/Signs%20and%20symptoms%20of%20lung%20cancer.aspx?sc_lang=en#ixzz1jBCmRIzD; http://cancer.about.com/od/lungcancer/tp/preventcancer.htm


7 responses to “Women and Lung Cancer

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