Lung Cancer in Women: The No. 1 Cancer Killer That Can Be Tamed

Although breast cancer diagnosis is twice as common in women (1 in 8 women will get breast cancer) compared to lung cancer (1 in 16 women), the cure rate for lung cancer is much lower, resulting in more deaths from lung cancer.
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Lung cancer has become the No. 1 cancer killer in women. Long the most common cancer causing death in women, breast cancer has been better controlled due to early diagnosis with mammograms, prevention with medications (and even risk-reducing surgery), and better therapies. Which has resulted in the increasing death rate from lung cancer to now be producing more fatal outcomes in women than breast cancer did before.

In 2012, the 209,000 deaths in developed countries from lung cancer in women outnumbered the 197,000 deaths from breast cancer, and lung cancer entered first place. Worse, estimates from the American Cancer Society show even a greater risk for women. While deaths in America from breast cancer are expected to be slightly more than 40,000 in 2015, deaths from lung cancer are predicted to be over 71,000. Although breast cancer diagnosis is twice as common in women (1 in 8 women will get breast cancer) compared to lung cancer (1 in 16 women), the cure rate for lung cancer is much lower, resulting in more deaths from lung cancer.

Men are not doing any better in avoiding deaths from lung cancer, either. While prostate cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in men (1 in 7 men will have prostate cancer) compared to lung cancer (1 in 13 men), more men will die of cancer (86,000 in 2015) than will die of prostate cancer (27,000).

What should we be doing with this startling information? Can we stop this epidemic?

Here are my tips for you.

• Don't smoke. Smoking is the most common cause of lung cancer, and avoiding smoking can reduce the lung cancer death rate in women, as it has in men. Smoking cessation reduces lung cancer over 20 years, so you must start now. To help smoking cessation, discuss your smoking with your physician. Expect to get advice on when and how to quit, setting a date to quit, and get advice on nicotine replacement aids (gum, patches, inhalers and even e-cigarettes) and also about medications that help (for example, buproprion or varenicline). If you don't get that advice, get a referral to a specialist or get a second opinion (see my book Surviving American Medicine for advice on where to get second opinions).

• Counsel your children of any age about not smoking and not even trying e-cigarettes which can be a gateway to smoking addiction and deaths from lung cancer (and other cancers as well, including cancers of the lip, tongue, mouth, larynx or voice box, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, kidney, bladder, and even breast cancer).

• Get more information about smoking and the dangers, as well as advice on quitting. When you are trying to quit, use the smoking cessation hotlines to help.

• Get lung cancer screening. Using a low-dose CAT or CT scan of your lungs (which takes only minutes), lung cancer can be diagnosed at a very early stage, when it is most curable. When diagnosed early, lung cancer is as curable as breast cancer! But you have to ask your doctor about lung cancer screening if you are at risk. Who is at risk? Current smokers and people who have smoked in the past (especially if you have more than a 30 pack-year history [multiply the average number of packs per day you smoked times the number of years you smoked to get pack-years], quit in the last 15 years), or have an exposure to second hand smoke at home or at work, or have been exposed to asbestos (or other occupational hazards) in your occupation or at home, or have exposure to radon (in your house cellars are a common source), or have a family history of lung cancer. If your doctor will not order a screening CT scan, get a second opinion. Guidelines for screening may vary a little between organizations, and insurance coverage may very in different health plans, so work with your physician to make sure that based on your risk and any symptoms that you can get your screening test.

• If you have any symptoms, insist on a diagnostic (not screening) CT scan of your lungs from your doctor. These symptoms can include any cough lasting more than two weeks, coughing up any blood (in the phlegm it can be red or brown in color), having any chronic chest pain, having any shortness of breath or wheezing, or having unexplained weight loss. Remember, only by diagnosing lung cancer early can you have a good chance at cure.

Taming this No. 1 killer is possible. Work with your family, your doctor, and your own motivation to win the race to prevention.