Office of Women's Health

Facts about Lung Cancer

How common is lung cancer in women?

Lung cancer is the largest single cause of cancer deaths in the United States. For years, men were at higher risk for lung cancer because of higher smoking rates. However, with more women smoking, lung cancer surpassed breast cancer in 1987 as the leading cause of cancer deaths among women. Over the last two decades, lung cancer deaths have increased 150 percent in women, compared to an increase of about 20 percent in men. In fact, with all outside factors being equal, women have a greater risk of developing lung cancer than men. Several studies have suggested that estrogen may help lung cancers to grow, increasing the risk of lung cancer developing in women.

What causes lung cancer?

Smoking is by far the leading risk factor for lung cancer. Tobacco smoke causes more than eight out of 10 cases of lung cancer. The longer a person has been smoking and the more packs per day smoked, the greater the risk. If a person stops smoking before lung cancer develops, the lung tissue will slowly return to normal. Cigar and pipe smoking are almost as likely to cause lung cancer as is cigarette smoking.

People who do not smoke but who breathe the smoke of others (second-hand smoke) also have a higher risk of lung cancer. Second-hand smoke is the third leading cause of preventable death in America, yet nearly half of all non-smoking Americans are still regularly exposed to it. Non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke at home or work, increase their risk of developing lung cancer by 20 percent to 30 percent.

Asbestos is another risk factor. People who work with asbestos have a higher risk of getting lung cancer. If they also smoke, the risk is greatly increased. Arsenic and radon, as well as other cancer-causing agents in the workplace, are also risk factors. Other factors that increase a person’s risk include having had radiation therapy to the lung; personal and family history; diet; and air pollution.

What is the current treatment for lung cancer?

The best way to avoid death from lung cancer is never to smoke or to stop smoking. Once lung cancer is diagnosed, there are several treatment options, including radiation, various chemotherapies and surgery. Survival rates have improved for non-small cell lung cancer because of advances in combination radiation/chemotherapy treatment. However, small cell lung cancer (most often found in people who smoke cigarettes) is still very difficult to treat. Small cell is the most aggressive of lung cancers, and many patients have advanced disease by the time it is diagnosed. Small cell lung cancer is responsive to both chemotherapy and radiation, yet nearly all these patients eventually relapse and need additional treatment.

There is a clear need for more effective treatments for lung cancer. New advances in research have recently led to new drugs that can protect normal cells from being destroyed from chemotherapy.

Early detection remains the key to successful therapy. If you have a history of chronic coughing, coughing up blood, chest pain, shortness of breath, hoarseness or wheezing, on-going problems with bronchitis or pneumonia, swelling of the neck and face, loss of appetite or weight loss, or fatigue, you should be evaluated by your physician as soon as possible. Lung cancer is not the only smoking-related cause of death in women. The World Health Organization states that at least 25 percent of women smokers will die of smoking-related disease such as cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

How can I prevent lung cancer?

The best way to prevent lung cancer is to avoid smoking. If you currently smoke, ask your health care provider to assist you in finding resources to help you quit smoking. It is also important to try to avoid second-hand tobacco smoke, radon, asbestos and pollution, which can increase a person's risk of developing lung cancer. Controlling other lung diseases, such as tuberculosis can help prevent lung cancer, since there is evidence that lung cancer tends to develop in scarred areas of the lung. Finally, eating a good diet with lots of fruits and vegetables also may help prevent lung cancer.

More information about lung cancer can be obtained by contacting:

Lung Cancer

National Cancer Institute
800- 422-6237

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

301- 592-8573

Lung Cancer Fact Sheet

The National Women’s Health Information Center, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Lung Cancer

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention