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Lung Cancer and Women: What You Need to Know

November is Lung Cancer Awareness month. Lung cancer kills more women than any other cancer – nearly 200 each day. Most die within a year of diagnosis. Yet lung cancer remains the “hidden” women’s cancer – little known and rarely discussed. It is the least funded cancer in terms of research dollars per death of all the major cancers.

It’s one of the only cancers where patients are routinely blamed for causing their condition. But despite lung cancer’s strong association with tobacco use, one in five women who develop the disease has never smoked.

What’s the Difference?

Lung cancer develops differently in women and men. There are sex differences in many areas of the disease, including risk factors, clinical characteristics, progression and length of survival.

For example:
• Women who have never smoked appear to be at greater risk for developing lung cancer than men who have never smoked.
• Women tend to develop lung cancer at younger ages than men.
• Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed in early stages of lung cancer.
• Women are likely to live longer than men after treatment for the disease.

Biological and Genetic Influences

In addition to family and smoking history, there is mounting evidence that hormonal influences and genetic markers may influence the onset of lung cancer whether or not there’s a history of smoking. These include:

1. Hormonal Influences. Studies have found a possible connection between hormones such as estrogen and lung cancer development. Estrogen is involved in functions such as cell division and growth. Researchers believe estrogen can directly or indirectly promote lung cancer by triggering estrogen receptors that are present on some lung cancer cells, causing these cells to grow and spread in the lungs.

2. Hormone Replacement Therapy. Given the association between hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and breast cancer, understanding any possible impact of HRT on lung cancer is important, but complex. The Women’s Health Initiative study concluded that in post-menopausal women, combined estrogen and progesterone HRT did not increase the risk of developing lung cancer. However, women who took combined HRT had an increased risk of dying from lung cancer, specifically after developing non-small cell lung cancer. Several other studies have also looked at a possible link between combined HRT and the risk of developing lung cancer, but the results have been mixed.

3. Molecular and Genetic Markers. Women may be predisposed to development of lung cancer by virtue of a number of complex molecular or genetic processes. Women appear to have more DNA damage and mutations even if they smoke less than men and their bodies may be less able to repair damage than men.

Protect Yourself

The good news is that your risk of getting lung cancer can be lowered by good self-care and management of controllable environmental risks. Ways to protect yourself include:

• QUIT SMOKING. Now. This is the number one cause of lung cancer. Yes, it can be tough to quit, but medication can really help.
• Getting your spouse to quit. A non-smoker who lives with a smoker has a 20-30% greater risk of getting lung cancer. So at the very least….no smoking indoors!
• Eat fruits and vegetables. Research is showing that eating lots of different fruits and veggies may lower your risk of the disease.
• Get your home tested for radon. Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer. A home test kit costs as little as $15. If you have elevated levels, get an expert test through your state radon office (epa.gov/radon/radontest.html). There are radon reduction systems that can lower levels by up to 99%.
• Know your family history. Your risk of developing lung cancer doubles if you have an immediate family member who’s had it.

Watch out for these signs and symptoms

The signs and symptoms of lung cancer can be very subtle. Be on the lookout for a cough that won’t go away or gets worse over time, weight loss or loss of appetite or frequent lung infections. Five-year lung cancer survival rates are still low despite advances in treatment, and early detection is very important. A recently released study showed that death rates can be improved with use of CT scans. The scans detected tumors earlier than x-rays, thus allowing patients to begin therapy when the disease is more treatable.

To view this article and additional information about women and lung cancer, visit http://www.nawhc.com/2010/11/09/lung-cancer-and-women-what-you-need-to-know/.