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Lung cancer and women: heartache and hope

April 26, 2010 |  4:40 pm

Lung cancer has been the leading cause of cancer death among women since 1987, claiming the lives of 70,490 women in 2009. But it's still called the "hidden women's cancer," because other cancers that are common among women — breast cancer in particular — are so well known and well funded.

So, it's probably high time that someone put out a comprehensive overview of the disease's specific toll on women. And on Monday, that's just what the Brigham & Women's Hospital and the Lung Cancer Alliance did. The result is "Out of the Shadows: Women and Lung Cancer," an authoritative roundup of research on how many and which women get lung cancer, who survives, what treatments are in the works and how those treatments are likely to affect female lung cancer patients differently from men.

Among the most striking findings: Among women lung cancer patients, 1 in 5 never smoked cigarettes, and an increasing number of these women are younger patients. Among men, 1 in 12 diagnosed with lung cancer never smoked. Of the 20,000 to 25,000 people who never smoked to be diagnosed yearly with lung cancer, 60% are women.

Other striking facts:

— Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with adenocarcinoma, a form of the disease that is both operable and that appears to be linked to estrogen.

— Women who smoke seem to have markedly more DNA damage and mutation than do men, even if they smoke less. 

— Women who develop lung cancer survive longer than do men, no matter how early it was discovered, what type of lung cancer it is or how it was treated.

The report contains an excellent discussion of the research and debate surrounding early screening for lung cancer, as well as a provocative look at how and why research funding for lung cancer, per patient death, is lower than almost any of the other major cancers. The main reason, of course, is well known to lung cancer patients and their families: the rather cruel assumption, given its strong link to smoking, that this is a cancer one brings upon oneself.

— Melissa Healy

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