Published on January 19, 2021
Young Women Developing Lung Cancer at Higher Rates than Men
Lung cancer is on the rise in young women. A study published in the International Journal of Cancer found that women between the ages of 30 to 49 are developing lung cancer at higher rates than men.1 Also, many of these young patients with lung cancer are diagnosed at a later stage.
“The perception is that the average lung cancer patient is a middle-aged white man with a 40-pack a year history of smoking, and that needs to change,” said Dr. Narjust Duma, a medical oncologist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Duma has been at the forefront of highlighting lung cancer as a woman’s disease. Her clinical and research focus is on thoracic malignancies, and she is passionate about understanding the many different causes of lung cancer and bringing attention to the needs of this patient population.
While public awareness campaigns for breast, cervical and prostate cancer have led to earlier detection for many people, lung cancer awareness lags behind. With more information being made available to the public and campaigns targeting a younger demographic, experts hope that people will begin to understand that lung cancer can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender or tobacco use.
The Many Causes of Lung Cancer
Although smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, and the one most often associated with the disease, it is not the only cause. Lung cancer can also be caused by secondhand smoke, indoor air pollution, genetic mutations and even mouth bacteria.2 Radon gas, which is the second leading cause of lung cancer, is responsible for an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 lung cancer deaths in the United States each year.3
Despite its many causes, the stigma of lung cancer persists. Instead of the compassion and support offered to most cancer patients, those who disclose a lung cancer diagnosis are often asked, “Did you smoke?” Dr. Duma has compassion for all of her patients, whether they have smoked or not. “No one deserves to get cancer,” she said. “And so, when people shame others who may have smoked, it’s not fair. We don’t ask people who get diagnosed with colon cancer, ‘Oh did you eat red meat?’” That being said, Dr. Duma intends to help all of her patients to quit tobacco if they currently use it. She’s also dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of early detection.
Early Detection Can Lead to Better Outcomes
During her days at the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Duma often met for coffee with a young woman named Katherine Bensen. Sadly, Ms. Bensen passed away from lung cancer in September 2020. “She was my friend who encouraged me in the early days of my career,” Dr. Duma said.
As a healthy, non-smoking, active software salesperson, Ms. Bensen didn’t fit the demographic of someone with lung cancer. The nagging cough that affected her at age 40 didn’t slow down this busy mom of four. At least not right away. After being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, she became a vocal patient advocate to push for early detection, which likely would have led to a better outcome for her.
According to the American Lung Association, the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 56 percent when the disease is diagnosed early. If the tumors have spread to other organs by the time it is diagnosed, however, the five-year survival rate is only five percent. Unfortunately, later-stage diagnoses are common because doctors may not think of lung cancer at first, especially when they see a young woman like Ms. Bensen — but Dr. Duma is working to change that.
“How is it possible that women with a nagging cough get sent for a mammogram before a chest x-ray?” Dr. Duma asked.
You Are Your Own Best Advocate
Regular check-ups for breast cancer and colorectal cancer have become the norm for many people, but screenings for lung cancer are not as common. Unless you are a regular tobacco user between the ages of 55 and 64, it is unlikely that you would be screened for lung cancer, and even for patients that qualify for lung cancer screening the rates are low.
Being your own best advocate means listening to your body. If you notice any new or changing symptoms — even something seemingly innocent like a nagging cough that persists — ask for an appointment with your primary care physician and bring notes. The more information you can provide, the higher the likelihood is of being heard. This is what Ms. Benson emphasized when her lung cancer diagnosis was delayed because she wasn’t sent for a chest x-ray sooner.
The good news is that oncologists like Dr. Duma and others are generating awareness around this deadly disease and encouraging women to be their own advocates with their primary care doctor. They also encourage women who have been diagnosed with lung cancer to connect with others in their community and join support groups that offer first-hand knowledge and helpful advice about this disease.
In time, the hope is that better awareness will lead to better outcomes.
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1Fidler-Benaoudia M, Torre L, Bray F, et al. Lung cancer incidence in young women vs. young men: A systematic analysis in 40 countries. Int J Cancer. 2020 Aug 1;147(3):811-819.
2Hosgood D, Cai Q, Hua X, et al. Variation in oral microbiome is associated with future risk of lung cancer among never-smokers. BMJ Thorax. 2020.
3Giraldo-Osorio A, Ruano-Ravina A, Varela-Lema L. Residential Radon in Central and South America: A Systematic Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Jun 24;17(12):4550.
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