Lung cancer is the most common cancer worldwide and is responsible for more annual deaths than prostate, breast and colon cancers combined. But while death rates from some cancers have declined, lung cancer survival has remained relatively steady for decades.
Historically, lung cancer has been a predominately male disease, but the numbers are changing. In the US, lung cancer rates among men have fallen, while the number of new diagnosed cases of lung cancer in young white women is climbing. A similar trend is occurring globally. In recent decades, the worldwide rate of men’s lung cancer has decreased, while the rate for women has soared 27 percent.
Although a cause for the increase in female lung cancer cases hasn’t been identified, smoking appears to be a factor. Some research has indicated women might react differently to nicotine or that women’s DNA may be more easily and more severely damaged by the carcinogens found in tobacco.
Changing political norms may also be a contributing factor. Female smoking rates are higher in countries with greater female empowerment, partly due to marketing that equates the habit with emancipation. It is important to find a solution to reduce this negative impact of positive change.
The international gender gap previously associated with smoking is also narrowing among younger adults and adolescents. In France and the UK, more 15-year-old girls smoke than 15-year-old boys, and in Australia, 5 percent of both male and female adolescents smoke.
But while smoking is linked to approximately 85 percent of lung cancers, I want to be clear, it is certainly not responsible for every case. Statistics from the World Health Organization indicate exposure to second hand smoke increases the risk of lung cancer for non-smokers by 20 to 30 percent. Other risk factors include exposure to air pollution, asbestos or radon gas.
For this reason, it is important that we not rush to judgement or point to smoking as a singular cause. Stigmatizing lung cancer limits research funding, unfairly penalizes victims of the disease and delays the development of effective treatments. Regardless of how or why an individual develops cancer, they deserve the same care and respect as any patient.